Brown decision ended segregationist policies but not practices

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Sixty years ago, 13 families sued the board of education of Topeka, Kansas, on behalf of 20 students to end state-supported school segregation. The case would be referred to by its lead plaintiff Oliver Brown, a father, welder and assistant pastor asked b

Sixty years ago, 13 families sued the board of education of Topeka, Kansas, on behalf of 20 students to end state-supported school segregation. The case would be referred to by its lead plaintiff Oliver Brown, a father, welder and assistant pastor asked by his local NAACP chapter to join the class action lawsuit that would change the landscape of public education for years to come.

Tuesday marked the 57th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. The Board of Education decision that declared state-supported segregation unconstitutional and separate schools “inherently unequal.” The decision paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement and a period of bold and brazen protests of America’s racially discriminatory policies.

Brown is a reminder of what can be accomplished if a few ordinary citizens challenge a law they know to be wrong. But it also demonstrates that it isn’t enough to end segregationist policies; we must also end segregationist practices. Today, more than a half-century after the high court ruled unanimously against state-supported segregation, the quality of education our children receive continues to be influenced by race and ethnicity, income and where they live. In Illinois, state policy supports a school funding formula that awards schools in affluent communities anywhere between $2,000 to $10,000 more in per pupil spending than those in poor rural and minority school districts. How is the world we live in today any different than it was before the Supreme Court struck down segregation?

I ponder that and other questions about how to improve public education as I prepare to accept an appointment by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to become a member of the Chicago Board of Education. I welcome the opportunity because education is my passion. To this position, I will bring my own unique experiences, such as knowledge of the obstacles my father encountered growing up in Mississippi trying to access a quality education; seeing an angry white mob throw rocks at buses carrying Black children to white schools while I was a student at Harvard University; and sending my three children to good public schools in a city that groomed America’s first Black president but where 60 percent of Black boys don’t graduate. I also come as president and CEO of a civil rights organization that is suing the state and its board of education over the way it funds its schools.

The educational landscape in Chicago and the state of Illinois is peppered with one paradox after another. But these contradictions should lead us straight to common sense reforms, not more stall tactics. It has been said that education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. I believe that with all my heart. In fact, we hear people say that they care about education all the time. But education was a key civil rights issue last century, too. If we were to chart our progress, we would see a lot of progress made undone. Our failure to maintain the spirit of the historic Brown decision has helped to lead to the deterioration of public education in America. There is hope of resolving these challenges, but we have to move faster, more boldly and deliberately.

Last week state lawmakers sent legislation to Gov. Pat Quinn that would base teacher tenure on performance over seniority. The proposal would also make teacher contract negotiations more transparent by publicizing the last best offers of both sides to encourage good-faith efforts and allow public opinion to play a role in resolving disputes. Such changes are important and a move in the right direction. They put the children’s well-being first. But it is also troubling in modern society that public policy has for so long placed the interest of adults over our children’s best interest.

Improving public education and assuring equal access to a quality education for all children will be an ongoing conversation. I’m happy to take part in it. Everyone should get involved and support the bold and radical changes in education that our leadership in Washington is demanding of school districts and administrators around the country. We must embrace common sense reform against policies that fly in the face of fairness and the promise of equality that the Brown decision was supposed to have secured for us a generation ago. If 13 Black families could challenge the status quo in 1951 and win, then surely we, as ordinary people with our own unique set of experiences, can stand up and demand that America honor its promise.

Andrea L. Zopp is president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.

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