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Weekend Read: 66 years after Brown v. Board, schools across the South still separate and unequal

Apryle Young has seen the water dripping from the ceiling and the rats that hide in the walls at her children’s schools in Memphis, Tennessee.

There’s no air conditioning on hot days, and no heat on cold days. What’s more, there are not enough textbooks: Teachers have to make copies of the relevant pages. But when Young’s daughter has problems with her homework at night, she needs the whole textbook, not just a few pages.

On the eve of the 66th anniversary of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed school segregation and declared that separate schools are inherently unequal, schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods like Young’s have fewer resources, fewer counselors and experienced educators, and, overall, lack the level of educational opportunities found in schools in predominantly white neighborhoods.

As the nation observes the Brown decision on Sunday, May 17, schools are becoming more segregated, not less, experts say. What’s more, children of color are caught in the “school-to-prison pipeline” – the harsh cycle of policies, practices and procedures that, directly or indirectly, push children out of schools and into the criminal and immigrant justice systems – at much higher rates than white children.

“There’s still no equality in education,” said Young, a plaintiff in a lawsuit from the Southern Poverty Law Center to keep public money in two Tennessee school districts instead of diverting the funds to unaccountable private schools. “To me, it’s still a form of segregation.”

The SPLC is pushing back against racial inequities in education across the South by fighting to keep public money in public schools, dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, and advocating for thriving public schools in every community.

“The Brown v. Board of Education decision is as critical today as it was 66 years ago when the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional,” said Christine Bischoff, senior staff attorney for the SPLC’s Children’s Rights Practice Group. “School closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic across the country have laid bare inequities in education that persist today, as we see low-income children and children of color in particular struggle to access the resources they need – like computers and the internet – to continue their learning during this time.

“Some children are not receiving any special education services while schools are closed, and others struggle to access school meals during this unprecedented time,” she said. “As Brown affirmed 66 years ago – and it still holds true today – separate but equal is not equal. Each of us must continue to work every single day to fulfill the promise of Brown so that all children in our country have equal opportunities to attend and thrive in high-quality, diverse schools.”

After the Brown decision, many Southern states established publicly funded private school voucher schemes to get around court-ordered integration. Today, voucher programs persist across the South and continue to be an obstacle to equal opportunities for all children to learn.

In Tennessee, the SPLC and its partners recently won a big victory for parents and children in predominantly Black school districts when a judge struck down a voucher program that would have drained money from public schools and given it to private schools that are not legally bound by the civil rights protections required in public schools.

The victory highlighted the SPLC’s efforts to keep public money in public schools. The Public Funds Public Schools (PFPS) campaign, which launched last year, is a partnership of the SPLC, the SPLC Action Fund, the Education Law Center (ELC), and Munger, Tolles & Olson. PFPS works to ensure that public funds for education are dedicated to public schools, which serve the vast majority of students – including the majority of Black students – in our country.

In a lawsuit against Mississippi, the SPLC argues that the state has repeatedly violated a nearly 150-year-old, legally binding federal law that prohibited the state from diminishing the education rights enshrined in the state constitution ratified in 1869, which included the requirement to operate a “uniform system of free public schools” for all children. This obligation was placed on the state as a condition of rejoining the Union after the Civil War.

As schools in communities of color across the South suffer from severe underfunding and harmful policies and practices, the SPLC works to ensure equitable opportunities for students of color to learn, grow and thrive.  In Alabama, the SPLC sued a school district for violating the due process rights of two Black teenagers expelled from high school and arrested after a cellphone was mistaken for a gun.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to expose these deep inequities, the SPLC is working to keep children out of juvenile detention – a place where Black and Latinx children are overrepresented. The SPLC recently won the release of a Black girl from youth detention to protect her from the coronavirus. The girl had been arrested at school following an incident involving a cellphone. The SPLC is currently seeking to free more children from youth detention during the pandemic.

The SPLC and other children’s advocates are also urging state leaders in Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi and Alabama to use the millions of dollars the states are receiving in federal emergency funding for the pandemic to eliminate educational inequities among children and families disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 school closures, including students of color.

Still separate and unequal

The unanimous Brown ruling declared in 1954 that racial segregation in public schools was a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. In the ruling, the court emphasized that education was “perhaps the most important function of state and local governments” and that school desegregation was necessary for the integration of our society as a whole.

In the years that followed, federal judges held hundreds of desegregation hearings; the National Guard was deployed to protect nine Black students integrating Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas; tens of thousands marched on Washington in support of integration; and Congress passed landmark civil rights legislation.

But the nation’s schools, in recent years, have resegregated.

More than half of the nation’s schoolchildren are in racially concentrated school districts, where over 75% of the students are either white or of color. Many districts in the South remain under federal desegregation orders today. As private school voucher programs have expanded, racial and economic segregation has widened gaps between low-income students and wealthier students, and between white students and students of color.

The SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance project found that “the average Black student attended a school that was 48.8 percent Black and 27.6 percent white. On the flip side, the average white student attended a school that was 72.5 percent white and only 8.3 percent Black.”

Despite those sobering statistics, the Brown decision did have positive, lasting effects, according to Daniel Kiel, a professor of law at the University of Memphis whose work centers on inequality in the educational system.

“On pretty much every measure, African Americans are doing better than they were in 1954,” Kiel said, citing higher rates of high school graduation, college enrollment and college degrees.

But white students are also doing better in those areas, he said.

The question, he said, is not how much progress has been made since the Brown decision, but how much equity has been attained since then.

“In terms of pretty much every measure, the quality in education, the equity in education, is still tilted against African American students,” he said.

For Black students, there are fewer financial resources and lower quality in terms of school curricula and experienced educators. What’s more, discipline is more severe for Black students than for white students, Kiel said.

‘Frighteningly similar’ to 1954

“It still tilts very much against African American students in a way that is frighteningly similar to the way that it was in 1954,” Kiel said. “I do think that Brown was highly important to remove the legal mandate [for segregated schools]. …But the last six decades show us that simply getting the legal mandate out of the law isn’t enough to make things equal.”

Legal segregation has been replaced by policies over the years that resegregated schools without explicitly using race. Those policies centered on school district boundaries, attendance zones within school districts, tracking students into higher-level classes within schools while leaving others behind, and differences in the way Black and white children are disciplined in classrooms.

Those kinds of decisions are harder to fight than a law overtly mandating separate schools for Black and white children, Kiel said.

“A large part of the issue in the way that Black children are educated is around the control of dollars and how those funds get distributed equitably or not,” said Cardell Orrin, an education advocate in Tennessee who works with parents, educators and community members. “That comes down to a resource issue that is still reflected today in terms of how we invest in our students, particularly those who have the highest needs.”

Young, the mother whose children attend Tennessee schools that don’t have enough textbooks, agreed with Kiel’s and Orrin’s assessments. By advocating for private school vouchers, she said, the Trump administration’s Department of Education is looking to take more money from poorly resourced public schools around the country that have majority Black populations, and give it to private schools that are mostly white.

“I don’t think we’ve made a lot of progress” since the Brown decision, Young said. “I think at this point we’re going backwards, especially when it comes to our current administration, because it seems like they’re wanting to separate it more.”

‘Much farther to go’

Many historians regard the Brown decision in 1954 as the beginning of the modern civil rights movement, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 as the end of the movement.

The SPLC’s Civil Rights Memorial features this timeline on a circular granite table outside the SPLC’s Montgomery, Alabama, headquarters that bears the names of 40 martyrs who died during the civil rights movement. There is space on the Memorial after the line marking King’s death – an acknowledgment that there is still more work to do to achieve full racial equality.

“On the 66th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision, we pause to reflect on how far we have come since the law mandated ‘separate but equal’ schools that were far from equal in the way that they educated Black and white children,” said Tafeni English, director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center.

“Today, we look back on that Supreme Court decision in 1954 and, while de jure segregation may be a thing of the past, we continue to see deepening racial and economic resegregation in schools,” English said. “When we look at the way our children are being educated today, we can clearly see that we have much farther to go to achieve racial parity in schools, so the march for racial justice and equality continues.”

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