Isolated from Opportunity: Reflections on Brown v Board of Education 66 Years Later

Monique M. Chism
In the Brown decision, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:
Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments… In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

May 17 marks the 66th anniversary of the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. The court’s unanimous ruling outlawed racial segregation in public schools, citing a violation of the equal protection clause under the Fourteenth Amendment.

For some, the fight for the opportunity for an equal education culminated with this decision. However, history and our present health crisis have shown that this is not the case. Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, notes that schools are more segregated today than at any time in the last 45 years. The consequences of segregation for racial and ethnic minority students and students from low-income communities often translates into an experience of isolation from opportunity. We continue to struggle with what it means to provide a high quality education to all.

Reckoning with the Past and Present

Several legal actions, including three Supreme Court decisions, fractured the strength of Brown. In 2020, there has been a resurgence of court action regarding states’ responsibility to provide educational opportunity.

Key Legal Actions on Educational Equity and Segregation

  • In Keyes v Denver School District, 1973, the Supreme Court distinguished between state-mandated segregation (de jure) and segregation that is the result of private choices (de facto), thus allowing for de facto segregation.

  • Also in 1973, in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the high court ruled that education is not a "fundamental right" and that the U.S. Constitution does not require equal education expenditures within a state. 

  • In 1974, the Supreme Court went further, deciding in Milliken v. Bradley to block city-wide busing plans in Detroit that aimed to desegregate schools.

  • In Williams v. Reeves, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on April 2, 2020 that Mississippi's lack of a "uniform" education system violates the 1868 federal law that readmitted the state to the Union after the Civil War.

  • Recently,in Gary B v. Whiter, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit decided on April 23, 2020 that the U.S. Constitution provides a fundamental right to a basic minimum education, including access to literacy.

In the backdrop of those recent decisions is the global coronavirus pandemic, which has demonstrated how discriminatory practices that perpetuate systemic inequalities further isolate marginalized populations during a crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the effects of COVID-19 on the health of racial and ethnic minority groups is still emerging; however, current data suggest these populations are experiencing a disproportionate burden of illnesses and deaths. 

Chief Justice Warren’s sentiment that education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments still rings true today. In schools, learning has continued during the pandemic with minimal interruption for some students, but a larger percentage of students, who have been historically isolated from opportunity, are now even further behind. Looking at preliminary academic growth measure estimates, NWEA researchers suggest that students may return to school in fall 2020 with less than 50% of typical learning gains and, in some grades, nearly a full year behind what would be expected in normal conditions.

Envisioning High Quality Educational Access and Opportunity for All

Given where we are as a nation in our progress toward ensuring an opportunity for a high quality education for all students, and in light of the work we will need to do to rebound from the impact of COVID-19, we are confronted with what Martin Luther King Jr. framed as, “the fierce urgency of now.”

It is easy to say that every child deserves opportunity—regardless of race, disability, ZIP code, or family income. It is easy to say that we expect excellence from every child. However, it has been much more difficult to ensure that decisions connected to funding, policy, practice, and support translate into real access and opportunity for historically marginalized students.

Experience demonstrates that when we accept our civic responsibilities, we can change the law, systems, and communities. Ensuring a high quality education for all students will require:

  1. A collective solution focused on collaboration across multiple sectors, including health and social services, institutions of higher education, the workforce, housing, and civic and community-based organizations;  
  2. Substantial investments from public, private, corporate, and non-profit sectors to meet the needs of stressed and struggling education systems across the nation;
  3. State education agencies to focus on cultivating climates that support innovation and allow educators, students, parents, and communities to rethink education;
  4. An investment in teachers because closing opportunity gaps requires a great educator in every classroom, for every student; and
  5. Safe, equitable, and engaging schools to foster the social, emotional, and academic needs of students.

The fight for educational opportunity and the quest for civil rights are inextricably linked. When we focus on education as a civil rights issue, it changes the cadence of the conversation. It means that we actively seek to identify and acknowledge policies that are biased. It means identifying, acknowledging, and addressing the attitudes, dispositions, and beliefs that lead to a culture of low expectation. It means saying out loud that if we really believed all kids deserve a high- quality education that we as citizens of this nation would not continue to turn a blind eye to the disinvestment we see in urban, rural, and tribal communities across the nation. We, as citizens of this nation, would not just care about our kids—but all kids.

Monique M. Chism, Ph.D., a vice president for Policy, Practice, and Systems Change at AIR, is a renowned expert in educational equity, statewide systems of support, supporting effective teachers and leaders, creating safe and healthy schools, and turning around low-performing schools and districts. As Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education for the U.S. Department of Education, she was advisor to the Secretary and Assistant Secretary of Education on pre-K–12 education policy, oversaw the direction of eight program offices, and led key aspects of the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act.