The 60th Anniversary of Brown v Board of Education Reminds Us That Strengthening Educational Opportunity for Young People of Color Matters More Than Ever

Sixty years ago, on May 17, the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in Brown v Board of Education, forbidding school segregation and holding that “separate is inherently unequal.” This landmark case created a significant ripple effect in many ways, including successful litigation that exposed other less blatant forms of institutionalized segregation, striking down barriers such as language exclusion, biased IQ testing, geographic isolation, and school fees.

Today, our nation owes much to the Brown v Board of Ed. ruling. Everything about America today—our public life, economic landscape, advances in science and medicine, and new frontiers in the arts—has benefited from the contributions of leaders of color who had the opportunity for an integrated public education as a result of Brown.

Between 1971 and 2012, reading scores among 13-years-olds revealed that black students have made significant gains, with scores rising 24 percent since 1971. However, despite education gains among black students, they continue to lag behind their white counterparts.The white-black gap went from 39 points in 1971 to 23 points in 2012.

And even more than 60 years ago, it is clear today that our nation cannot live with this continued gap. For one thing, a far larger share of children is potentially affected by racial inequity.  In 1954, about 13 percent of children under age 18 were classified by the Census Bureau as non-white (although the category of Hispanic was not included in the Census until 1970). Today, almost half of children are children of color—and the tipping point to a “majority minority” child population will be 2018 or 2019.

For another, a strong high school and post-secondary education that leads to a career is even more critical today. By 2020, 65 percent of American jobs will require some form of postsecondary education. Thus, transforming the educational landscape that black, Latino, Native American, and Asian American young people face is central to America’s economic success. 

What lies behind these remaining gaps? First, far too many young people have failed to benefit from the integration promised by Brown v. Board of Education because of remaining inequities between schools that serve large numbers of minority children and those that don’t.

For example:

The inequities in the experiences of young people of color start well before the traditional K-12 years. For example, while black children make up 18 percent of all preschoolers nationally, 60 percent of the children suspended from preschool more than once are black.

What’s worse is that these inequities inside the school building compound the challenges young people of color face outside the school building—higher rates of poverty and distress in their families and communities. Black and Hispanic children face far higher poverty rates than white children—in 2012, the poverty rates for black children (37.5 percent) and Hispanic children (33 percent) were roughly triple that of non-Hispanic white children (12 percent)—and they are far more likely to live in communities of concentrated poverty even if they are not poor themselves, which has significant physiological, emotional, and behavioral consequences. Black and Hispanic parents are more likely to work in jobs that do not offer them the opportunity to take time off for any reason, including spending time at a child’s school or taking care of a child’s health or other problems. 

If the nation is to overcome these challenges and carry forward the legacy of Brown v Board of Ed., we need to take on all these issues. 

First, we need to shine a light on the capacity of schools to support the success and aspirations of all young people. The color of a child’s skin or where he or she lives should not dictate access to a chemistry class or a teacher with more than one year of experience. By gathering more robust data, the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education is highlighting these critical issues and providing the evidence needed by school districts, policymakers, advocates, and others to respond to and address inequities in our schools.

Second, we need to seize the promising opportunities to intervene at several high-impact stages of schooling, from the earliest years to the transition from high school to career and several points in between. Based on what we know about high-leverage opportunities to change young people’s lives, as well as the gaps and barriers that cause  young people to fall back, at least 6 points of intervention stand out: early childhood education; third grade, where a strong grasp of reading and numeracy skills is critical to success; middle school years, where early warnings of potential disconnection from school are evident; ninth grade, where students experience the make-or-break transition into high school; dropout recovery, where students who have left school can gain reentry and complete their education; and the high school to postsecondary or career transition. 

Third, in low-income and high-minority communities, schools can’t do it alone. Communities can work collaboratively to address the needs of students by connecting schools with social services, health, and other community-based organizations.

And fourth, we cannot let up on a vigorous anti-poverty agenda. We know that young people who grow up in poverty start out behind for many reasons.  Housing instability, food insecurity, health challenges, parental stress, and the experience of community violence and trauma all often put obstacles in their paths. But poverty can’t be an excuse for lower expectations or weaker schools. And if we can stay the course on policies to reduce poverty, young people will face far fewer hurdles.

We have come a long way since the days of “separate but equal.” But clearly we have not succeeded as a nation in providing equal access to the educational opportunity that all our children need to thrive and succeed in life. The mandate to do that is just as urgent now as it was in 1954.