Anyone who cares about schools and education and the state of democracy in the United States has been thinking about Brown v. Board of Education lately.

Brown, of course, is the legal case that, 50 years ago on May 17, established that democracy cannot survive when different kinds of citizens are treated differently. It was the case in which the Supreme Court ruled that separate treatment inevitably leads to inequality and unfairness.

Too often people discuss Brown as though it only had to do with schools and that it was important mostly to African Americans, with an occasional nod to Latinos and American Indians.

It did, of course, affect schools, and it was enormously important to African Americans, Latinos and American Indians.

But the fact is that African Americans, Latinos and American Indians are still, for the most part, separated into unequal schools. When they are in the same schools, they often are separated into very unequal classrooms.

Despite that fact, Brown is of towering importance to the entire country because it helped revive the very idea of democracy and fairness.

Today it is almost impossible to imagine all the undemocratic and unfair structures that were maintained before the civil rights movement, of which Brown was an important part.

The separate newspaper job listings for white men, the housing covenants that prohibited homeowners from selling to blacks and Jews, the courts that prohibited blacks from serving on juries, the police and sheriff's departments that turned a blind eye to mob violence -- the list goes on and on in horrifying detail, all of it completely antithetical to the ideals of democracy, and all of it corrupting everyone who participated and ultimately the whole society.

Brown was not the beginning of the end to all the discrimination. Lots of challenges had been made long before, which in many ways set the stage for Brown. One was the planning of the 1941 March on Washington by A. Philip Randolph, which forced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to open factory jobs in the defense industry to African Americans.

Another was the draft resistance campaign, led by Randolph and World War II veterans, forcing President Harry S. Truman to integrate the armed forces in 1948. And there were countless individual acts of civil disobedience that brave men and women undertook without ever getting the notice that Rosa Parks did.

But Brown was a turning point because it was a recognition by the most powerful legal institution in the country that democracy requires equal treatment and that separate can never be equal.

Which brings us to what many have called the "unfinished business" of Brown.

The fact is that we have yet to ensure that all children are treated equally and fairly in our schools.

The research and information along these lines are overwhelming.

African American and Latino students are twice as likely to have inexperienced and unqualified teachers as their white counterparts, according to research by such academics as the University of Pennsylvania's Richard M. Ingersoll and Stanford University's Linda Darling-Hammond.

And schools with mostly minority students tend to have much less funding than schools that serve mostly whites, according to any number of studies, including a 2003 analysis of U.S. Census data by the advocacy organization Education Trust (www.edtrust.org).

In Alabama, the gap in annual funding is $900 between black and white students; in Illinois, $1,079; in Maryland, $1,218, according to an October 2003 report by the Trust. For a class of 30 students over 12 years in these three states with large populations of black students, that means a difference of $324,000 in Alabama; $388,440 in Illinois; and $438,480 in Maryland.

Careful study by such people as Michael T. Nettles, head of research for the Educational Testing Service, has documented that although African American students begin kindergarten with a measurable but small gap in vocabulary and background knowledge, that gap is not narrowed, but widened, by their spending more time in school.

By fourth grade, the gaps between white and African American students are large and difficult to close, and by high school they seem insurmountable. Certainly one reason for this must be the unequal funding and distribution of teachers.

The effects of these disparities in resources are measurable: African American and Latino 12th-graders read and do math at about the same level as white eighth-graders. Only 51 percent of African American and 52 percent of Latino students graduate from high school on schedule, compared with 72 percent of white students.

Even Montgomery County, which can congratulate itself on the fact that it has some of the most integrated school buildings in the country, has much unfinished business. Black and Latino students are assigned to the newest and least experienced teachers more often than white students; and they too often are closed out of a rigorous and demanding curriculum.

One way to consider this question is to look at the data on the special programs that Montgomery County reserves for those students it has deemed "gifted."

These are, at the elementary school level, the six Centers for the Highly Gifted scattered through the county; two middle-school magnet programs in Silver Spring; the International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville; and the science, math and computer science magnet program at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.

Of the 2,009 slots in those programs, a mere 101 are filled by African American students and 47 by Hispanic students. Now that African American and Latino students together make up about 40 percent of the student population in Montgomery County, the fact that only 7 percent of the students in these special programs are black and Latino becomes shameful.

The statistics on those programs, which could be replicated in many school districts around the country, demonstrate why the hopes of African American and Latino parents have been dashed since Brown. They had thought that if their children simply had access to the schools available to white children, they would have access to all the resources available to white children.

But they ran into a huge stumbling block, which is that schools have been organized unequally, not only along racial and class lines but also in an even more pernicious way.

Roughly a century ago, there was a general consensus that the point of schools and education was to sharpen students' minds, increase their intelligence, and add to their store of learning and knowledge. But soon after the turn of the century, the new field of psychology began casting doubt on such a notion. The modern "men of science" argued that people were born with a certain store of intelligence and that it was foolish to waste educational resources on those who would never be able to benefit. Further, they argued, it was possible to predict with precision who could benefit from education by administration of simple paper-and-pencil tests that eventually became known as IQ -- for Intelligence Quotient -- tests.

The success of IQ measurements in sorting soldiers into various jobs and training routes during World War I bolstered the claims of the testing psychologists. That success, coupled with the huge waves of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and Asia in the first quarter-century -- immigrants thought by many in the elite to be dull and uneducable -- made for a powerful argument to use first secondary and then elementary schools not as institutions to transmit learning to a new generation, but as vast sorting devices to divide children into winners and losers.

Students were tested at earlier and earlier ages, then sorted into different educational programs -- some leading to college and some to jobs, either real or illusory. (Old printing techniques, for example, were still being taught in vocational high schools long after the printing industry had changed technologies several times over.)

Although not all black and immigrant students were shunted into low-level curriculums, and not all American-born white students were shunted into high-level curriculums, those were the overall patterns laid down around World War I that continue today, long after those old notions of fixed intelligence that can be easily measured by a pencil-and-paper test have been completely dispelled.

And that is the post-Brown problem faced particularly, but not only, by poor students and students of color. Too often they are not seen as the "gifted" children most deserving of extensive education, and they are too often shunted into low-level curriculums that do not even pretend to prepare students for college and are taught by inadequate or unprepared teachers.

Which is why the bipartisan federal law known as No Child Left Behind is such an important step forward. It has as its bedrock the notion that all children can learn and that all children must meet state standards of learning. That is a truly revolutionary notion, which is why it is considered by many in the civil rights movement to be the extension of Brown.

The question facing us on the 50th anniversary of Brown is whether No Child Left Behind can, in fact, finish the work that Brown started 50 years ago -- making sure each child in America has the opportunity to meet high academic standards.

Homeroom is a forum for you that appears every week in Montgomery Extra. Send questions, opinions and issues that you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St., Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or e-mail homeroom@washpost.com. To see previous columns, go to www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/education/columns/homeroom.