Brown v Board of Education: 50 years later

Posted: May 14, 2004 12:00 AM

American society tilted on its axis when the Supreme Court heard Brown vs. Board of Education in 1953. In perhaps the seminal civil rights case of the century, America's greatest legal minds debated whether to allow black children an equal opportunity at education. In his final decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren seared the following words into the nation's consciousness:

To separate [black children] from others of similar age and Qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of Inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone...We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place.  Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

With these weighty words, all of America's children were equipped with a seat in public classrooms. 50 years later, we have not yet gotten around to securing that these students actually receive an equal education. 

As things stand, some students are taught well while the rest - mostly poor and mostly minority - flounder or drop out. The statistics on the "achievement gap" measuring the difference in academic achievement between white and black American students are grim. According to the  recent national data by the Department of Education, by the time black American students reach 8th grade, only 12 percent can read proficiently and only 7 percent are proficient in math. Similarly, by the time Hispanic students reach 8th grade, only 15 percent are proficient in reading and only 12 percent are proficient in math.

The major implication: 50 years after Brown V Board of Education, public schooling in this country remains separate and unequal. Or, as Professor Lawrence Stedman observed during a 1997 Brookings Institution conference, "Twelfth grade black students are performing at the level of middle school white students. These students are about to graduate, yet they lag four or more years behind in every area [including] reading, math, science, writing, history, and geography. Latino seniors?are also four years behind white twelfth graders?the conclusion is distressing but unavoidable?[A] generation has passed and the achievement of educational equality remains an elusive dream."

We pour millions of dollars into the public education system every year. So why is it that so many minority children have difficulty reading above a fourth grade level? A big part of the problem is that the highest concentration of blacks and Hispanics exits in urban communities, where parents simply lack the financial whether withal to secure better schooling options for their children. Whereas the well-to-do can always pick up and move to the suburbs, poor inner city children remain stuck in the deteriorating conditions that have characterized America's urban public schools for decades.

This is unacceptable. Fifty years after Brown v Board of Education ,we need to ensure that our children are receiving a decent education, regardless of income, background, or race.  This need was not lost on President Bush, who passed the bi-partisan No Child Left Behind Act. Among other things, the act holds public schools accountable for failing to properly educate our children. That constitutes an important victory because up until recently, the teachers unions would be damned if they were going to allow public school teachers to be held accountable for the job they do educating our children.

Of course, accountability needs to mean more than penalizing schools. It means students must be held personally accountable for  underperforming. The U.S. Department of Education must work with community organizations to explore practical options for alternative and supplemental services, including implementing tutoring, after-school programs, mentoring, and parent training programs. When a school is found to be in need of improvement, parents,  school officials and community organizations must work together to turn things around.

For the past fifty years we've failed to do that. Our inability to imagine what it must be like to be a poor, inner city student has allowed us to write off entire generations because of the whim of geography. We need to change that. Equal education an essential civil right and the crucial component in the complex struggle for social equality.