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Brown v. Board of Education


Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2004; 12:00 PM

Fifty years since the Supreme Court ended segregation of public schools in the landmark Brown v. Board decision, some schools in the heartland of the U.S. have come a long way. For instance, schools in Topeka, Kansas, are among the most racially diverse in the country. The proportion of minority students in Topeka public schools have been increasing and three in four Topekans are white. The Brown v. Board ruling was heralded as a landmark step in the quest to end racial discrimination, but what is the reality a half century later?

Washington Post staff writer Michael Dobbs will be online Monday, May 17 at Noon ET to discuss the anniversary Brown v. Board and the legacy of desegregation.

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The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Michael Dobbs: Thank you for joining me for this on-line discussion. I look forward to answering your questions in the next hour or so.


Nederland, Colo.: You report the Topeka school superintendent saying if his schools aren't good enough "people will vote with their feet". But "Hispanics and African Americans are achieving at a much lower rate than whites". So, are those groups voting with their feet? Can most of them afford to go anywhere else, even with vouchers? If the government funded public schools in poor districts were like those in affluent districts, what would happen? Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Progress Made in City's Schools, but More to Go (Post, May 13)

Michael Dobbs: Good question. It is true that middle class families are more able to "vote with their feet" than poor families, who often find themselves stuck in places with low-performing schools. The school voucher movement says that vouchers are a way of empowering poorer families to choose better-performing schools for their children. There is a healthy debate over whether this is a good thing, or is helping to improve overall standards in public education. Having looked at the school voucher movement in Milwaukee, I find the evidence ambiguous, with strong arguments on both sides.


Arlington, Va.: Why is the racial debate always centered around black/white issues when the discussion should also include Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Native Americans? The legacy of Brown has impacted all minorities in this country, but with different outcomes. Why is this never discussed?

Michael Dobbs: It is true that much of the debate about the 50th anniversary of Brown v Board, including my own two front-page articles on the subject, has been couched in terms of black/white. I think this is understandable, given the history of this Supreme Court case, which was largely about African-Americans suing to get into white-only schools. However, I agree with you that the debate should be broadened to include other minorities.


Parkvilee, Md.: I just visited the website of Clarendon Hall, the private, Christian academy mentioned in your article. And I noticed that, though your article claimed that 5 African American students attended the school, their faces are nowhere to be seen among the many pictures of students that grace the site.

What would you make of this? To me it seems like the school is sending a message with its website. Ordinarily educational institutions make a point of presenting a diverse student body in their literature, in part to help attract underrepresented groups. Clarendon, it would seem to me, is doing quite the opposite.

washingtonpost.com: Schools and Lives Are Still Separate (Post, May 17)

Michael Dobbs: Your question should really be adressed to the administrators of Clarendon Hall. One answer may be that there were even fewer African-American students at the school when they put the website together. Even a year ago, i think there were only one or two black students there.


West End, N.C.: This is not a question but a comment. As a young black man who has a mother in the education field I found that we need more teachers period who supply the care for the students. I understand the fact that a black child can learn more from a black teacher, so we need more black teachers to love and care like my mom. She is pride and joy to students at her school and not just black students but most student black and white an any other race there who have seen or just heard about her. She is not only a teacher but a mom to some who don't have one, a role model, and a second mom or an aunt. That is what we need, that is what is best for all, are just good black teachers but we also need good white teachers and we do have some. But to say that we can be separate and equal is dissolute and extremely outragious because schools that are mainly black tend to get less money than schools that are mainly white and that is the way it is. No its not right so why but yourself in this perdicament. Just give us good teachers who are all about helping the students, as well as caring for the students.

Michael Dobbs: Thanks for your comment. Many would agree with you that we need more good black teachers like your mom. When I visited Topeka and South Carolina to report my articles about Brown v. Board, I found there was considerable nostalgia for the quality of the teaching in the all-black schools that existed prior to Brown. The nostalgia was not for segregated schools, but for excellent teachers. Many older people who remember those times made the point that, in those days, it was very difficult for black professionals to find decent jobs, so many gravitated to teaching. There was also a much stronger sense of community--with extremely close ties between teachers, pastors, and parents. It's impossible, and undesirable, to turn the clock back, of course. But it's also true that there were some things in all-black schools that are worth emulating.


Vienna, Va.: Overall, how do you see the trends of integration in schools from general regions in the U.S. such as the East Coast, Midwest, West Coast and the South?

Michael Dobbs: One of the misconceptions about what has happened since Brown v Board is that the South is the most segregated part of the country. That is not true, as shown by statistics collected by the Harvard Civil Rights Project. The North East, including the Washington area, has schools that are significantly more segregated than the South. For Hispanics, the most segregated part of the country is the West, where schools are rapidly resegregating.


Detroit, Mich.: I grew up in downtown Detroit during the '60s & '70s which was a great time of turmoil in our country. We were one of a small number of white families that survived the on slot of racial criticism and attacks. I watched in utter disbelief when our state began busing white kids from the suburbs into our ghetto schools. I don't know what the number of attacks were by the black children against the whites, because it was too numerous to count. It was like throwing sheep to the wolves. There was a huge resentment and hatred toward whites in Detroit. Busing into the city proved to be a disaster. Once the parents saw the results of integration it was halted within a few weeks. We watched our teachers leave one by one because of the attacks on them as well. . . I can only hope that in the future when politicians make decisions for our country that they consider talking to the people that live in that environment first. [edited]

Michael Dobbs: As you point out, mandatory bussing is an incredibly controversial subject, not only among whites but also among blacks. Detroit is a good example of a large city where there was fierce opposition to bussing, and it was eventually abandoned. Detroit is now one of the most segregated cities in the country, at least from an educational point of view.


Maryland: I saw a documentary on the decision recently on PBS that 15% of NYC students are whites. How can that be?

washingtonpost.com: Transcript: PBS: Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise (Live Online, May 13)

Michael Dobbs: I cannot vouch for the 15 per cent figure, but it is quite possible. White enrollment in public schools all over the country is much lower than the enrollment of minorities, proportionate to the population. In Topeka, for example, whites constitute 75 per cent of the overall population, but only 50 per cent of the student population. Research has shown that the numbers of white students in public schools dwindles dramatically in places where more than 50 per cent of students are minorities.


Washington, D.C.: In the NYTimes book review yesterday, the reviewer covered 3 recent books on Brown v. Board and commended one of them for having the courage to take on the "dirty little secret" of black underachievement in public schools today -- that a black male who does well in his studies is teased by his peers for "acting white." Your thoughts?

washingtonpost.com: Still Separate, Still Unequal (NY Times, May 16)

Michael Dobbs: There are many reasons for the underachievement of black students in public schools. The factor you mention obviously plays a role, but I don't think you can single out only one factor. Other factors include insufficient investment in high-minority schools, poor teachers, and the fact that minority students tend to come from poor families. In general, I feel that academic success is closely related to effective support systems. Kids will achieve if these support systems--parents, teachers, and community role models, all workinng together--are in place. When they are not in place, it is easy for kids to fall through the cracks.


Fairfax, Va.: After Brown v. Board, there still is the testing gap that is distinguished by racial groups. How have testing and other standards of education changed in the last 50 years that reflect the social change that has happened in schools?

Michael Dobbs: There is still a big achievement gap between students of different racial groups, as you point out. Blacks and Hispanics are trailing whites, and whites are trailing Asian-Americans. I think the educational debate is moving beyond the Brown v Board debate on integrated schools, to the question of why some students perform less well than others. As I pointed out in my last reply, this is an extremely complicated subject, on which many views are possible. It is fairly clear, however, that integration has not automatically resulted in higher levels of academic achievement. In some cases, it has; in others, it hasn't.


Washington, D.C.: In D.C., Wilson has the highest percent of white students than all of the D.C. schools altogether. This is a geographic factor since NW is the most expensive part of D.C. However, there are few whites students at the other D.C. HS.

Michael Dobbs: I don't cover D.C. schools, so I cannot claim to be an expert in them. It is true that (1) there has been rapid resegregation in the D.C. school system over the last two or three decades, and (2) most white students are concentrated in a very small number of schools. In my story today, we mentioned the example of the Philip Sousa school, which was all-white in 1950. Its student body today is made up of 401 African-Americans, four Hispanics, and no whites.


Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation has a report that most Member of Congress who voted against school vouchers sent their kids to private schools, including all the black members.

Michael Dobbs: It is also true that the Clintons, who were pro-public school in principle, sent their daughter Chelsea to a private school. I guess it is possible to be (1) pro-public school, (2) opposed to school vouchers on the grounds that that the money would be better spent on public schools, but (3) believe that public schools in D.C. are in such bad shape that you would still prefer to send your own kid somewhere else.


Nederland, Colo.: I don't get the logic of vouchers. If everyone had equal opportunity to use vouchers, would low-performance schools eventually have zero students? Would high-performance schools maintain high performance with so many new students coming in? Are the effects of students busing to new schools considered? Or does the voucher program rely on assuming that not all eligible students will use it? Thank you.

Michael Dobbs: The pro-voucher crowd would argue that vouchers help to create an educational free market, in which good schools are rewarded and poor schools are penalized. This may be true in theory, but the practice is somewhat different. A few months ago, I visited Milwaukee, the site of the first large-scale voucher program in the country. I found that some voucher schools are excellent, others are terrible. The voucher schools are not held to the same accountability standards as the public schools, so there tends to be a lack of information about which ones are good and which ones are bad. Even in Milwaukee, which has the best-funded voucher program in the country, voucher schools seem to have had a relatively limited impact on the public school system.


Washington, D.C.: Another question: What is your opinion about the school districts who have become black-only by choice, such as Prince Georges County schools, whose parents resist busing in white children with comments like, "We don't want diversity now, thank you very much." Isn't that a bit unfair (if not ironic???)

Michael Dobbs: Opposition to bussing comes from both whites and blacks. In many places, including Prince George's County, parents have to decide whether they prefer the magnet school model (which offers special programs and can attract students from a wide area) or the neighborhood school model (where there is obviously a much stronger sense of community.) Since neighborhoods tend to be racially segregated, neighborhood schools are usually going to be less integrated than magnet schools. But that is a sacrifice that many people, including many blacks, are prepared to make in order to get a good neighborhood school.


Baltimore, Md.: It is my understanding that most of the funding for schools come from taxes collected by residents of a city, county, state. If this is correct, it would only make sense that a school in a more affluent neighborhood would be better funded. Unless a system of pooling the money and redistributing the funds equally among the various school districts is instituted, how will school is low income areas ever catch up?

Michael Dobbs: You have touched on an extremely topical debate in education. In practice, there is already a system of redistributing funds in effect, as the federal government channels most of its funding to schools in high-poverty areas. But it is difficult to generalize. In some cases, high-minority schools receive significantly less funds than middle class schools in the neighboring school district. In some cases, viz. Washington D.C., per pupil spending on high-minority schools is as high as any school district in the country. Funding is important, but it is not all-important.


Maryland: Do you think that 50 years after, the difference in quality of education is based on race or do you think that the focus has shift to socio-economic factors and accessibility to technology?

Michael Dobbs: I think there are many factors at work. That is what makes education such an interesting subject. There are no easy answers!


Anonymous: Can you talk about how violence correlates with urban schools and how race plays a factor in school violence?

Michael Dobbs: Obviously school violence is higher in urban schools settings, but I have not yet made a detailed study of the reasons for this, or the correlation with race. Perhaps this will be the subject for a future article.


Michael Dobbs: Thanks very much for joining me. I enjoyed the discussion.


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