May 13, 2014;Education Week

The sixtieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision probably strikes some people as a historical anomaly. The landmark decision declared that “separate but equal” was an untenable, indefensible theory in American public schools. It is all but forgotten in much of the discourse concerning public education in the nation today, for reasons that are partly demographic and partly due to the evolution of public policies around “education reform.”

Writing for Education Week, Lesli Maxwell notes some of the demographic shifts: Next fall, white students for the first time ever will constitute less than half of all children enrolled in public schools. Black enrollment will remain steady at between 16 and 17 percent, but Latino enrollment will hit 30 percent in the next decade. Despite the Brown decision, whites rarely attend public schools where they are less than 25 percent of the enrollment, while single-race public schools are still common, especially in urban areas and in the rural Deep South.

Given the demographics, is the Brown decision still relevant? More importantly, for all of the talk in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors regarding racism, racial disparities, and structural racism, do Brown and its desegregation message fit into what nonprofits in the education space are doing?

For some, practical demographics make Brown difficult to live up to in practice. For example, in Kansas City, Missouri, which had been under a federal desegregation order, the student population in the school district has dropped from 77,000 in the late 1960s to 13,000 now, nine out of ten of them from families poor enough to be eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Maxwell attributes the decline to the flight of white and black middle-class families to suburban districts and to “independent charter schools.” It is difficult to imagine what desegregation might look like in KCMO, given the shrinkage of the inner-city public school population and the increase of suburban and private alternatives to the public schools.

The scope of what counts as a civil rights issue in public education has also changed. Although both Attorney General Eric Holder and representatives of the U.S. Department of Education have expressed concerns, many school districts have faced complaints about their use of policies such as suspensions affecting African-American boys disproportionately more than white kids. While the Court in Brown ruled that separate-but-equal is really an imposition of a label of inferiority on pupils of color, zero-tolerance rules that kick black kids out of school at very high rates may very well constitute a version of officially imposed inferiority on black boys in otherwise racially integrated school settings.

Some school districts are rethinking—but not abandoning—concerns about integration. For example, in 2012, the school board of Nashville, Tennessee adopted a plan that included “a multilayered diversity definition that includes race and ethnicity, household income, language-learner status, and disability status.” The plan calls for no school to have a single racial or ethnic group making up more than half of the student enrollment and for all schools to have a representation of students who are low-income, English learners, or classified as having a disability.

While there are some 1,200 school districts following desegregation plans of some sort, “a majority of school districts in this country are not currently under court order to desegregate, [and] what occurs inside their schools is effectively a dual system in which racial isolation exists and racial disparities are prevalent,” writes Leticia Smith-Evans, the interim director of the education practice at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Data from the [Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection] show that students of color face resource inequities, which are evident in school facilities, classroom sizes, and availability of textbooks. Similarly, students of color often do not have the same access to courses, programs, and curricula as their white peers. In addition, the consequences of racial disparities in schools are seen in student discipline and graduation rates.”

Returning to the charter school issue, charter schools often get to exempt themselves from policies and requirements that would compel them to otherwise serve some populations. For example, a charter school might not offer lunches, which would be prohibitive to poor children who need the low- or no-cost food public schools provide, or might not offer transportation, which would make it difficult for children from poor families to get to school. Many charter schools, because of their facilities or curriculum, get to sidestep serving English-language learners or students with disabilities. Regular public schools don’t have a choice; they have to serve all comers. Nashville’s new integration plan makes its standards applicable to charter schools as well as regular public schools, requiring charters to have public school-like diversity plans and to report on their demographics.

While charter school operators do not intend to exacerbate racial inequities and racial segregation by their activities, research conducted by Iris Rotberg of George Washington University found that “There is a strong link between school choice programs and an increase in student segregation by race, ethnicity, and income.”

“Charter schools, even under a lottery system, also choose—sometimes explicitly and sometimes indirectly—and increase the probability of segregation. They limit the services they provide, thereby excluding certain students, or offer programs that appeal only to a limited group of families,” Rotberg writes. “Even beyond race, ethnicity, and income, school choice programs result in increased segregation for special education and language-minority students, as well as in increased segregation of students based on religion and culture…Special education and language-minority students are under-represented in charter schools, unless the schools are specifically targeted to these population groups…Even when the students are selected in a lottery, they are discouraged from attending charter schools when the schools do not provide the services they require.”

It isn’t hard to imagine that Rotberg’s concerns about charter schools’ impact on integration apply equally or more so to private schools, including those participating in voucher programs. The nonprofit role behind charter schools and private schools suggests that at least those nonprofits may not be particularly motivated to address or fulfill the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. Have education reform nonprofits really abandoned Brown?—Rick Cohen