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May 20, 2009

Brown v. Board of Education at 55

Richard Kahlenberg

This past Sunday marked the 55th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, but to the extent it was noticed at all, the case’s meaning was pretty well diluted beyond recognition.  Brown was about ending segregated schooling and upending the noxious legal principle laid down in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate” schooling for black and white could be “equal.”  Today, however, Brown has become for most education leaders a loose metaphor for improving education for minority students and is utterly divorced from the original notion that so long as disadvantaged minority students attend schools separately from more advantaged white students, those schools will be unequal.

Indeed, most of today’s education reforms – charter schools, merit pay for teachers, private school vouchers, standards and accountability – accept de facto segregation by race and class as basically inevitable.  Some of these reforms make sense educationally, but they are in essence trying to make the old vision of Plessy work as best as it can.  With school integration taken off the table, the educational outcomes have been mostly disappointing.

In the commentary around Brown’s anniversary, there were a couple of important exceptions.  In the New York Daily News, columnist Errol Louis argued that the Education Equality Project, co-founded by Rev. Al Sharpton and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, should put more emphasis on attacking segregation, which lies at the root of educational inequality .  And in The American Prospect, Dana Goldstein argued that liberals should recapture “school choice” from conservatives to further the goal of school integration.

Goldstein’s article rightly updates Brown with a focus on socioeconomic as well as racial integration.  The emphasis on the socioeconomic status of students is important for two reasons.  First, income integration produces a fair amount of racial integration without running afoul of the  the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Board, which struck down a race-based school integration plan.  Even the most conservative justices conceded that income-based integration is perfectly legal.  And second, economic integration is consistent with the vast bulk of educational research which finds that blacks don’t perform better sitting next to whites, but low income students of all races do better in middle class schools. 

At Think Progress, Matt Yglesias picked up Goldstein’s ball and endorsed the idea of socioeconomic school integration across school district lines.  Over at Mother Jones, however, the normally sensible Kevin Drum says this will never fly politically.  In a colorful depiction of the conventional wisdom, circa 1974, Drum argues, suburban parents “would go absolutely batshit insane over the idea.” 

What Drum ignores, however, is that there are several highly successful inter-district integration programs in place, some for decades, that are politically popular because they’re implemented with an eye to the realities of human nature.  Sure, some school districts continue to make stupid mistakes.  A few years ago, Manatee County, Florida sought to reassign students in “A” schools (Florida’s highest performing) to “F” schools (the lowest performing) in order to provide greater socioeconomic balance – a move quickly abandoned.  But most districts are far more sophisticated about integration and know that middle class families usually need incentives to be drawn into urban schools and that suburban districts, likewise, need incentives to accept low income transfer students.

As Amy Stuart Wells and Jennifer Jellison Holme note in an exhaustive 2008 Century Foundation study, in places like St. Louis, suburban schools have accepted substantial numbers of low income minority urban students in part because extra funds flow with those students and help districts balance the books.  Likewise, there are long waiting lists of white middle class suburban students for urban magnet schools in places like Hartford, Connecticut because what’s offered at the end of the bus ride is a quality education and an interesting pedagogical approach – like a Montessori School or one that teaches Multiple Intelligences.

In 2007, I worked with John Edwards’s presidential campaign on a proposal to double magnet school funding and to provide financial incentives for middle class suburban schools to accept low income student trapped in failing urban schools. These programs – which provide middle class families with incentives for integrated schooling – should be appealing to America’s first black president, who himself benefitted greatly from a chance to attend integrated schools.  Fifty five years after the most important Supreme Court decision of the 20th century, it’s time to get back to the substance of Brown – not just the symbolism.

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