Shyama Venkateswar Distinguished Lecturer, Hunter College and Director, Public Policy Program, Roosevelt House

Posted on May 16, 2014 · Posted in Frank Friday

In a landmark decision 60 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public school denied African American children educational opportunities enjoyed by their white peers and thereby violated the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Racial segregation — supported by the separate but equal legal doctrine of the constitution and made law of the land in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 — was evident in every aspect of American society from housing and transportation to public schools and swimming pools. The Brown decision on May 17, 1954 was historic in that it started the process of disassembling the entire legal structure of racist laws that would take another 15 years to complete to bring full citizenship to African Americans.

The wisdom of that Supreme Court’s ruling in 1954 was in its finding that Jim Crow laws had no place in the public education of the 20th century, as segregation made schools “inherently unequal.”  Court-ordered desegregation in schools had very clear impacts for the African-American community: one study found that a 25 percent decline in black dropout rates during the 1970s and another study reported a decrease in crime for black youth, while this study reported better health outcomes and higher earnings for black males. Integration was found to benefit non-minority children as well; research shows that white students accrue social-psychological benefits and better learning outcomes by attending racially diverse schools.

Integration of schools through enforced busing and investments in quality education had helped decrease the achievement gap between blacks and whites through the 1970s and 1980s. However, just a few short years later,  much of this progress was undone by court rulings that effectively overturned busing or invalidated voluntary desegregation plans by school districts. These actions, coupled with the Supreme Court’s decision to decline to be further involved in enforcing desegregation, created today’s conditions of an ever-widening achievement gap and a new generation of separate and unequal opportunities between black and white children.

According to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute assessing the 60 years since the Brown decision, black and Latino students are now more racially and socioeconomically marginalized than at any time since 1970. And in an ironic twist, the report finds that while Brown helped to usher in a civil rights movement and successful desegregation in most aspects of American life, it was the least successful in integrating education, its intended target. Today’s black and Latino children attend segregated schools in segregated neighborhoods characterized by high poverty.

The educational achievement gap starts young in the United States and is deeply linked to race, income levels, and geography. Low income minority children are often concentrated in low-achieving schools, and have access to fewer resources than middle-class or wealthy children. In New York City, District 7 in the South Bronx — one of the poorest neighborhoods in the entire city and heavily dominated Hispanic and African American populations — had the biggest drop in New York State tests in between 2012 and 2013, with a 64 percent decrease in reading scores and a 75 percent drop in math scores.

 A 2011 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that children living in poverty and reading below grade level by third grade are three times as likely to drop out of high school compared to middle-class students. Another landmark study conducted almost two decades ago, known as the “30 million word-gap study,” found that by age 4, children in low-income families had poorer language skills compared to their counterparts in more affluent families.A follow-up study at Stanford University found that the vocabulary gap begins as early as 18 months, putting already disadvantaged kids farther behind when they enter school. Datafrom the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that the average black student still performs better than only about 25 percent of white students which has daunting implications for future social mobility and wage earnings in the labor market across races.

Fortunately, there seems to be a clear solution to end segregation in American schools. The report from the Economic Policy Institute recommends that raising the achievement rate of low-income black children requires residential integration, and school integration can only succeed when “education policy is housing policy.” The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will be issuing a rule requiring all municipalities, including white suburbs, to comply by the 1968 Fair Housing Act’s requirement to follow policies that would “affirmatively further fair housing,” i.e., to integrate. That would be the first step to break the cycle of segregated neighborhoods leading to segregated schools and thereby creating the unequal educational opportunities which is an intolerable reality for millions of American children today.

The writing and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute or Hunter College.