On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education became a watershed moment in our nation’s history. By mandating that Americans cannot be equal without equal access to education, the decision breathed new momentum into the movement for civil rights. The ensuing years saw one barrier after another destroyed as we pushed and pulled our way to a more just and equal society.
Across the South, the tidal wave of change was staggering. In 1963, about 1 percent of African-American children in the South attended school with white children. By the early 1970s, that number had nearly reversed itself; 90 percent of African-American children in the South attended desegregated schools. At the same time, the racial achievement gap was cut in half.
And then, in the decades to follow, something happened.
This modern-day segregation defies the laws because it is based in socioeconomic inequality that, more often than not, translates to racial inequality. In America’s public schools, 1 of 2 children is poor. And three-fourths of African-American students attend schools where a majority of the students are living in poverty.
Today, African-Americans are twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, according to a new study by the Urban League. This dire economic situation is nothing new, although in recent years it has grown steadily worse.
From 1984 to 2009, the wealth gap between African-American and white households almost tripled; during that time period, the median net worth of white households grew to $265,000, compared with just $28,500 for African-American households. Add in the impact of the 2008 recession—from 2005 to 2009, inflation-adjusted median wealth fell by 53 percent among black households, compared with just 16 percent among white households—and it becomes clear that African-American children are unduly suffering from the impacts of living in poverty.
What this means is that more African-American children are coming to school hungry, tired and dealing with stresses at home that would overwhelm most adults. At the same time, the high-poverty schools, where kids need so much more, are provided so much less.
This deepening divide is compounded by counterproductive education policies, pushed by privatizers and austerity hawks who believe in a market-based system over public education—a system with winners and losers instead of equal opportunity for all.
Today, our public school system is under attack like never before. Public schools are starved, while being criticized relentlessly, and private alternatives are peddled as the only viable replacement.
We see it in Chicago, home to the largest mass school closing in America’s history, where the city has shuttered close to 50 schools, separating schools from neighborhoods as tens of thousands of students were displaced, and cutting thousands of jobs.
We see it in Philadelphia, where the state closed 24 schools and cut funding to dangerously low levels, while expanding tax breaks for corporations and the energy industry.
The common denominator in these districts? More than 90 percent of the students at the schools affected are African-American and low-income. Which points to the underlying problem: These schools are located in neighborhoods that are isolated by both income and race. The result is that the majority of students come to school with serious disadvantages that educators, who are strapped for resources, are unable to address.
The Brown v. Board of Education decision reinforced the vision that our public education system is an anchor of democracy, a propeller of the economy and a vehicle through which we help all children achieve their dreams. Now, 60 years later, we must do what we can to make that vision a reality.
That means reclaiming the promise of public education—not as it is today, or as it was in the past, but as it can be—to fulfill our collective obligation to help all children succeed.
We need strong neighborhood schools, in every neighborhood in America. We need engaging curriculums and wraparound services to meet the needs of every child. We need teachers and school staff who are well-prepared and supported.
We need to focus on teaching and learning instead of testing and punishing. Our children are not test scores and our teachers are not algorithms; our public schools should be places for students to experience the joy of learning and to develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.
We need to boost economic opportunity in urban areas, small towns and rural enclaves, and we need housing policies that will promote integration at home and at school.
Throughout our history, the fight for equality has been waged on many fronts. Without the efforts of the heroes and pioneers of the civil rights and labor movements, and so many more, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
However, as the divide between the haves and the have-nots grows ever wider, we see that there is much more work to be done. The legacy of Brown v. Board of Education must be that we continue to fight shoulder to shoulder and hand in hand to ensure that the promise of America—a shared opportunity to work hard and succeed—belongs to all of us.
Norton has represented the District of Columbia since 1991. A non-voting member of Congress, she sits on the Oversight and Government and the Transportation committees. Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers.