What About School Desegregation? Considering New Strategies Around Race And Education

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As we recognize the 69th anniversary of the historic U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, I find myself reflecting on the continuing inequity and lack of opportunity for a large population of Black students attending many of our public schools. Unquestionably, these continuing inequities are sad carryovers of both the legacy of enslavement and subsequent restriction of educational opportunity for African Americans through decades of lawful policies of segregation.

These inequities also carry over from the resistance to and sabotage of the nation’s efforts at school desegregation following the historic 1954 decision in Brown. Far too many of today’s Black students are enrolled in schools plagued with severe teacher shortages, resource disparities, low expectations, violence, and continuing learning disruptions flowing from the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Students assigned to these troubled schools are within that population that I believe Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson identified as “Abandoned Black America” in his book, Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America.

Despite a recent surge in destructive politics aimed at public education, our nation must resume a major effort to address this failure to educate such a large population of students. Confronting this matter must include acceptance of the nation’s constitutional obligation to remove the remaining vestiges of segregation to the greatest extent practicable. This effort must also include serious and thoughtful conversations around earlier methods for desegregation and the pros and the cons of those methods. I believe we can develop realistic strategies to combat these inequities, even within the context of huge demographic and other societal changes in America that have blurred a cohesive vision for desegregation since the decision in Brown.

David Sciarra, the longtime leader of the Education Law Center, recently put forth an argument for addressing the ongoing and continuing effects of America’s sad legacy of denying education to African Americans. In his report, Equity and Diversity: Defining the Right to Education for the 21st Century, Sciarra succinctly identifies the dichotomy of thought around strategies toward addressing the awful effects of our nation’s horrific legacy toward Black people and their educational opportunities. The dichotomy is between a strategy to affect improvement by desegregation (or diversity) compared against a strategy of bringing equity into the existing educational environments of Black students. Under a strategy of diversity, Black students would transfer from their low performing neighborhood schools — what some might call segregated schools — to be enrolled in high performing schools, with better resources and large white student populations.

On the other hand, an equity strategy would bring increased and targeted resources to schools in Black communities with a focus on meeting the needs of these students. This focus views Black communities not so much as segregated communities, but as communities deprived of equitable resources necessary for the delivery of quality education.

In my long history with civil rights and education, which includes my own personal experience of observing and participating in school desegregation efforts largely defined as “busing,” I have a familiarity with this dichotomy of thinking around improving education opportunity for African Americans. Do you on one hand eliminate the effects of the continuing legacy of education denial by bringing a racial balance to school districts to dilute the inherent, unequal nature of segregation? Or do you recognize those Black communities as communities and target them for the resources and stabilizing policies they have been historically denied?

Sciarra urges our nation to pursue both goals at once — immediately taking action to make educational opportunities more equitable, even as we work toward making schools more racially diverse. I believe he might be onto something.

His report issues a call for a 21st-century movement to put an end to inequitable school funding and school segregation. This call to action requires the collective courage to confront the stark reality of “the fault lines of race and class that have fueled stubborn resistance to change for decades.”

By combining an equity strategy (more resources for schools in Black communities) with a diversity strategy (moving Black students to better-resourced, majority-White schools), Sciarra significantly advances the national conversation around addressing the ongoing educational disparities facing many Black students.

To be sure, our nation’s earlier efforts at desegregation as a strategy to eliminate educational inequities led to significant gains in academic attainment levels for Black students, along with many other societal improvements. “Racial achievement gaps declined substantially during the 1970s and 1980s, providing evidence that desegregation could reduce inequality in educational outcomes. Studies of the effects of the desegregation of southern school districts during this time show that desegregation had a positive impact on Black students and no negative impact on white students,” according to a 2019 report from The Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis.

A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research also found that “southern-born Blacks who finished their schooling just before effective desegregation occurred in the South fared poorly compared to southern-born Blacks who followed behind them in school by just a few years.”

On the other hand, our nation’s efforts at desegregation also caused some undeniable harm to Black communities. A large population of Black teachers and supervisors had been developed over many decades through a long-term strategic collaborative between Black leaders and northern philanthropists following the Civil War, aimed at bringing education to African Americans coming out of enslavement and living through the era of Jim Crow in the southern states. This development of Black educators and education leaders continued in significant part through the strategic mission of many of our nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Despite these gains for Black students, the desegregation era also allowed for an unnecessary dramatic loss of Black teachers and Black administrators. In addition, the desegregation era weakened many Black communities because of the loss of the societal benefits from student connection to the communities in which their neighborhood schools existed. The societal benefits from student community affiliation to the schools they attend are a major ingredient in the concept of community schools.

In Jim Crow’s Pink Slip: Public Policy and the Near Decimation of Black Educational Leadership After Brown, author Leslie Fenwick of Howard University points out that between 35% and 50% of teachers were Black in the 17 states with racially segregated school systems in the 1950s and 1960s, just before desegregation began. Vanessa Siddle Walker of Emory University has also confirmed that tens of thousands of experienced, credentialed Black teachers and principals were fired, demoted, or forced to resign during desegregation. Today, only about 7% of public school educators in the U.S. are Black, despite evidence that all students benefit from having a diverse set of teachers.

Against this backdrop and history, the reality is that education opportunities for many Black students remain severely limited. Any strategy for addressing the lingering effects of lawful segregation and limited educational opportunity directed at Black students must consider the distinctive narrative of being Black in America, particularly within the context of Brown v. Board of Education. The highly polarized and political season in which we currently find ourselves makes thoughtful conversations on public education difficult and challenging. Nonetheless, I believe many education and political leaders are of a collective mind to bring forth more meaningful and effective strategies to address our nation’s continuing education disparities.

Our nation should celebrate the monumental U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. It was yet another demonstration of our nation at its best in opposition to the nation’s deficiencies when it comes to justice for all. However, the task is far from complete. Education justice is elusive, and the unequal education defined by the Supreme Court continues for many of our students. The anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education is a reminder of that continuing obligation.



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