Brown v. Board of Education marks its 60th Anniversary on May 17, 2014. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court  ruled that state laws establishing separate schools for black and white students were unconstitutional in the historic case Brown vs. Board of Education. I’ve published a few pieces on the legacy of the decision, here and here. Following is a new piece on where the United States should go from here to realize the promise of Brown. It was written by U.S. Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, a Democrat who represents parts of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, and Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union.

Wilson and members of the Congressional Black Caucus will, on May 29, 2014, host a panel discussion on Capitol Hill, “Educational Success for Black Men and Boys in a Post Brown v. Board of Education Era.” During this public event, a report by the National Education Association highlighting programs that have helped African-American male students do well in school will be reviewed.

By Frederica S. Wilson and Dennis Van Roekel

We were both in elementary school when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education opinion 60 years ago this week. Since then we have seen profound changes in our daily lives, as well as our country’s economy, culture and politics. Yet after six decades of sweeping change, our nation still has not realized the promise of Brown v. Board: Equal opportunity in education for every student.

The court’s unanimous opinion outlawed separate school systems for black and white students, which were required in 17 states including Florida in 1954. Despite vows of “massive resistance” in some places – one county in Virginia closed its public schools for a couple of years rather than integrate them – legal segregation has long been a relic of the past.

Unfortunately, segregation is still a reality, if not a legality – 16 percent of black students nationwide attend schools where no more than one percent of their peers are white. Furthermore, the Brown opinion was not simply about segregation. The court wrote:

In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms …

The justices were unanimous and they were unequivocal: Equal opportunity in education is a constitutional right of all students. This principle has since been upheld by courts in numerous instances, including a 2005 Florida case.

Yet that right to equal opportunity is still being denied to millions of students who live in poverty, most of them children of color. According to the U.S. Department of Education, African-American students are six times more likely than white students to attend a high-poverty elementary school – which often have inexperienced teachers, inadequate resources and dilapidated facilities.

This disparity in opportunity is illegal, immoral, and costly for our nation, and we must get serious about closing the gap. One strategy that works is quality early learning instruction and a network of support services. The Early Education Collaborative in Indianola, Mississippi, marshals resources to create a pipeline of health-care and education support for students in this high-poverty area. Since 2009, the collaborative has provided almost five thousand home visits to 400 families and increased well-child visits and immunizations.

We also need more programs to help African-American males, such as mentoring and career academies that build strong communities of support within schools. Career academies are in almost 5,000 high schools across the country. An evaluation of nine of these academies in large, urban school districts found that young men who participated in these programs had an 11 percent increase in average annual earnings over the previous eight years since they graduated, and this effect was sustained over the full eight years.

Twenty-two years ago, Congresswoman Wilson founded the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project, an in-school dropout prevention and mentoring program in Miami-Dade County Public Schools that has transformed the lives of thousands of young men of color. In situations where a child is missing an involved parent or a strong role model, there is a simple intervention that can make all the difference: A good mentor.

Finally, we can help students stay interested and motivated by improving their access to college and a rewarding career path. Valencia College in central Florida offers support services that include time-management, mentoring and academic counseling. Among African-American students who received these services, graduation rates more than doubled.

We need to expand and replicate these programs that work, and we must also be skeptical of blanket promises about ideas such as charter schools.  Some community-based charter schools get good results, but today some large corporations promote a different model of charter school to parents in poor neighborhoods. These privately run schools, which receive public funding without the accountability of public schools, feature large classes, inexperienced teachers, and hours of test prep on computers.

Parents do not want that kind of education for their children, and we should not pretend that it’s good enough for poor kids, either. The Supreme Court settled that issue 60 years ago.