On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court announced its decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” the Court ruled unanimously, declaring that schools and other institutions violated the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
The doctrine of “separate but equal,” which had been the law of the land since 1896 when Plessy v. Ferguson was decided, was audaciously overturned. Thurgood Marshall, a leading attorney with the case, recalled, “I was so happy I was numb.” He predicted that school segregation would come to an end within five years.
What happened? Did Brown matter?
“Why are we still in the same situation 65 years later,” asked Anthony Rebora, editor-in-chief of ASCD Educational Leadership Magazine, who moderated a panel discussion last week in Washington, DC titled, “Separate and Still Unequal: Race in America’s Schools 65 years after Brown v. Board of Education.”
“We know our schools are still segregated,” said NEA Vice President Becky Pringle, one of four panelists. “But we cannot walk away from that commitment that was laid.”
The event was hosted by ASCD in honor of the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Representatives from area public schools and universities joined officials with education associations in a robust discussion about how today’s educators and policymakers can better understand racial issues and work toward fulfilling the promise of Brown v. Board.
“We must know our (African American) history because we are getting very close now to where we were then (1950s),” said panelist Gregory Hutchings Jr., superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia. “We need courage because people are discouraged from standing up to racism.”
“When we talk about segregation, it’s not just what is happening in our schools. As educators, we have a huge responsibility but we can’t do it by ourselves.” – NEA Vice President Becky Pringle
In the 1954 decision, the Court declined to specify remedies for school segregation, asking instead for further arguments. The following year, in an opinion known as Brown v. Board of Education II, the Court declared vaguely that integration must occur “with all deliberate speed.”
Hutchings and other panelists stated that the American experience since that time suggests that educators cannot produce widespread social reform on their own.
“We’re putting too much weight on the shoulders of teachers,” Hutchings said. “We’re powerful people, teachers are … but we can’t solve society’s problems alone.”
Pringle agreed: “When we talk about segregation, it’s not just what is happening in our schools. We have to also address the structural racism in our country. We are one system in a collection of systems … housing, banking. As educators, we have a huge responsibility but we can’t do it by ourselves.”
Deborah Menkart is the executive director of Teaching for Change, an organization that works with educators and parents to create outstanding schools, and with students on social justice and other issues. During her opening statement, she said one aspect of Brown v. Board was that policymakers and other adults essentially commanded children of color to attend distant schools in unfamiliar neighborhoods by themselves.
“The legacy of that case is we didn’t include adults in the solution,” she said. “We sent children into those schools without adults to support them.”
As an example, Menkart mentioned the Little Rock Nine case when Orval Faubus in 1957, as the governor of Arkansas, used the state’s National Guard to defy the courts and stop African American students from attending Central High School. Their enrollment was followed by the Little Rock Crisis in which the students were initially prevented from entering the racially segregated school by Faubus.
On its own, the Supreme Court brought about little desegregation because it lacked the power to overcome local social conditions and resistance in schools, panelists stated. For example, the Court was powerless to remedy the lack of diversity among teachers, education support professionals (ESPs), school board members, and superintendents.
“We (African Americans) really haven’t had a seat at the table,” said Hutchings. “Even now, only three percent of superintendents (nationwide) are people of color.”
To counter “structural racism” found in some school systems, Pringle said minority school leaders and educators in particular must be encouraged to develop the skills, knowledge, and abilities to thrive within public school systems.
“We must do more work in the preparation of teachers of color,” she said. “That will make a difference.”
Panelist Dawn Williams, dean of the school of education at Howard University in Washington, stressed the importance identifying, nurturing, and recruiting minority educators so they are able to enjoy long, fulfilling careers in the education field.
“You have to be strategic,” she said. “You need a pipeline in school districts that encourages students of color to enter the education field.”
Hutchings added: “The more we can encourage people (to enter and remain in the education field) the more you are going to see a paradigm shift. A support system is also critical.”
Examining what schools offer to all students in all districts, such as advanced placement courses and after-school activities, needs to be tracked, said Williams, to enhance equity.
“That (data) needs to be more public,” she said. “We need to look inside schools to make sure they keep the promise of Brown v. Board.”