It’s a shame to grow old and not achieve a long-sought goal.
But circumstances sometimes thwart ambitions.
That’s the case for the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The seminal civil rights ruling outlawing school segregation — at least in theory — turns 65 on May 17.
As can happen when reaching old age, this birthday comes with some disappointment. Equality in education remains more a pledge than reality, in part because of obstructing federal policies.
That was the issue at a House Education and Labor Committee hearing this week. Its title tells the tale: “Brown v. Board of Education at 65: A Promise Unfulfilled.”
Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) set the stage with this opening statement: “The Court’s historic ruling was not the end of school segregation, it was the beginning of a long and difficult struggle to unwind centuries of systemic inequality that have influenced every aspect of American life. Today’s inequity in education, housing, economic opportunity, criminal justice, and other policy areas are the legacy of our history. … The federal government contributed to racial segregation and inequality, so the federal government must be part of the solution.”
School segregation lives, as do disparities, inequalities and discrimination.
“Over time, there has been a large increase in schools that are the most isolated by poverty and race,” according to a Government Accountability Office report released on Brown’s anniversary in 2016. The growth in K-12 public schools with high percentages of poor black or Hispanic students “has been dramatic,” the report added, surging 143 percent from the 2000 school year to 2013.
Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., said the number of African American students in integrated schools has dropped by half since the late 1980s. She and others at the hearing criticized Trump administration policies, saying they exacerbate educational disparities.
Administration “efforts to roll back civil rights protections,” she said, “extend beyond school integration efforts and are likely to result in further challenges to realizing the promise of Brown.”
Scott listed some of those efforts. He said that under President Trump, the Education Department has:
· “Rescinded an Obama-era guidance that provided recommendations to schools seeking to boost diversity in classrooms and campuses.
· “Tried to delay the implementation of a long-overdue rule designed to address racial disparities in the identification, placement, and discipline of children of color with disabilities. A recent court decision found that attempt to be illegal.
· “Dismissed more than 1,200 civil rights investigations that were started under the Obama Administration.
· “Produced a final School Safety report that cited bogus ‘research’ and blamed federal civil rights enforcement — without evidence — for school shootings.
· “Eliminated a 2014 guidance package that was issued to help schools address the clear evidence that Black boys and students with disabilities receive harsher treatments than their classmates in punishments. The guidance showed how you could reduce those disparities without jeopardizing school safety.”
The department was not represented at the hearing and did not respond to a request for comment. But when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testified before the committee earlier in April, she refused to say segregated schools hurt students and education.
Rep. David Trone (D-Md.): “Madam secretary, do you believe that racial segregation in public schools poses a threat to the educational opportunity for children of color? Just looking for a yes or a no.”
DeVos: “Congressman, I’m concerned about every student no matter where they are and where they go to school.”
Trone: “I know you’re concerned about every student, but racial segregation poses a threat for children. That’s an easy one. Give me a yes on that one.”
DeVos: “Congressman, I am concerned with every single student.”
Republicans on the committee praised the Brown decision and the Education Department at this week’s hearing, while seeking to change the conversation in favor of conservative favorites such as supporting charter schools through school choice policies.
“With the Supreme Court’s decision, the nation took a first step toward greater equality and opportunity for all people,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.), the top Republican on the panel.
“The legacy of Brown v. Board of Education,” she added, “should be to empower parents with the ability to choose the right school for their child and eliminate the ability of the state to consign children to low-performing schools with no means of escape.”
Coming to DeVos’s defense, Foxx said the secretary “is following the letter and spirit of the law and regulations. The secretary is thoroughly investigating discrimination claims and acting swiftly when those claims are found to be true.”
The two witnesses invited by Republicans to the hearing used their time to praise school choice programs. Dion J. Pierre, a research associate with the conservative National Association of Scholars, didn’t even mention the Brown decision in his opening statement.
Instead, he used his remarks to dump on studies that show black students are disciplined more harshly than white students for similar behavior. “These disparities were widespread and persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended,” said a Government Accountability Office report last year.
Despite the research, Pierre said “this disparate-impact theory is a fantasy.” He criticized the Obama administration’s “rethinking discipline” policy, which called for alternatives to school suspensions and expulsions. Pierre said “Obama-era policies restricting school discipline unleashed a torrent of new problems” at his former New York City high school. The worst school violence he described, however, occurred before Barack Obama took office.
John C. Brittain, a University of the District of Columbia law professor, criticized “an unfortunate retreat from school integration” by the Trump administration, including “removing racial and socioeconomic diversity as priorities in Department of Education competitive grant programs [and] canceling a school integration grant program after school districts had already applied.”
Brittain reminded the committee of remarks by Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, on the 60th anniversary of the decision.
“Brown literally changed America,” she said then. “It is a mid-20th-century course correction that ushered in a modern America that must grapple honestly with the promise of equality and opportunity for all of its citizens. At its core, Brown marks the beginning of the end of legal apartheid in this country.”
Well said. But after 65 years, we’re still at the beginning.