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Dawkins: Finding new promise in the legacy of Brown v. Board

Supreme Court Brown v. Board

This week marks the 64th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

The ruling reversed the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which allowed legal segregation in public facilities like schools, under the “separate but equal” rule.

While schools serving African-American students and their white counterparts may have been separate, they were certainly not equal in terms of their facilities or the quality of education they provided.

In 1951, after his daughter Linda was denied enrollment at the city’s white elementary schools, Topeka, Kan., resident Oliver Brown filed a class-action lawsuit against the local Board of Education. At the heart of Brown’s case was the argument that segregation was in violation of the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection clause.”

On May 17, 1954, the Court ruled in favor of Brown and several other plaintiffs. Chief Justice Earl Warren famously declared, “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”

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It was a momentous, historically important decision. But it’s important to remember that the court’s ruling didn’t integrate our schools overnight.The challenge of achieving full integration would take years of conflict–from federal troops escorting students to school in Arkansas in the 1950s to riots in Boston over school busing policies in the 1970s.

Sixty-four years later, the struggle to guarantee a quality education to all students continues.

A report released this week by civil rights advocacy group Journey for Justice Alliance, compared the academic offerings of majority minority schools with those of majority white schools in the same districts. In the study, titled “Failing Brown V. Board,” researchers found that majority white schools offered more academic courses, more foreign language offerings, and a wider variety of arts programs.

These findings are indicative of the persistent achievement gap between minority students and their white peers. While things are clearly better than they were 64 years ago, we still have a lot of work to do.

A recent Brookings Institution analysis of the 2017 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), found that minority students are roughly one-and-a-half years behind white students in terms of academic progress.

We’ve also seen evidence that segregation in American schools is on the rise. That’s due to a variety of factors, including demographic shifts and the expansion of school choice programs, among other changes.

Our public schools can and should do more to help shrink the achievement and opportunity gap and ensure students have access to diverse experiences. In March, I was lucky enough to attend the Council of the Great City Schools’ (CGCS) Annual Legislative and Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.

As I talked with leaders from some of the country’s largest urban school districts, it became clear that boosting academic achievement and ensuring equity for all students was a top priority. But school leaders also acknowledged the immense effort it will take to tackle some of the ongoing challenges facing America’s public schools.

I grew up under the shadow of the Brown v. Board decision–or perhaps, more appropriately, in the light of it. My achievements–including leading two school districts as superintendent–are directly tied to the opportunities provided by that landmark case. No matter their color or their station in life, Brown v. Board promises equal rights for every student to receive a great public school education.

Nearly sixty years of legal segregation passed between the Plessy v. Ferguson decision and Brown v. Board. More than sixty years later, it’s clear to me that Brown v. Board wasn’t the end of a struggle, but the beginning of one.

The question now is: How can we consistently deliver the promise made in that decision to all students, regardless of the color of their skin, or their circumstances in life? I, for one, think a commitment to authentic, collaborative school leadership is a great place to start.

What steps is your school or district taking to make equity a reality for every student? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author

Gerald Dawkins
Dr. Gerald Dawkins is a former school district superintendent in Louisiana and Michigan. He is currently senior vice president of superintendent and district relations for K12 Insight. You can reach Dr. Dawkins at gerald.dawkins@k12insight.com.

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