It would be hard to overstate the impact of the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education on the evolution and shape of public education in America. However, a lesser-known decision, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, may ultimately do more to provide minority and low-income students with the equal educational opportunities the Brown decision meant to ensure.
Decided in 2002, Zelman upheld the constitutionality of publicly-funded scholarships, or “vouchers,” for low-income students to attend private (including religious) schools.
National School Choice Week, celebrated by a diverse coalition of 500+ groups, provides an opportunity to reflect on how these two federal-level cases interrelate and the potential they hold for a more equitable education landscape in the future.
The Brown decision—argued by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall—declared race-based school segregation unconstitutional, asserting that the “segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprives children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal.”
More than half a century later, we know that the mandate of Brown was often circumvented in practice and its promise unfulfilled; when faced with integration at the school level, whites fled urban districts in droves, incidentally taking their higher tax base—and public school funding—with them.
However, even schools that did achieve racial diversity on paper could relegate black students to lower tracks or classrooms with lower expectations and less effective teachers.
Sadly, these practices continue today. I have been astonished by the number of examples shared with me by students and former students whom I’ve interviewed for my documentary film series TEACHED.
Brandon Johns, an up-and-coming NAACP lawyer, explained that he was “put aside” in a separate classroom with other black students in their majority-white Philadelphia neighborhood school, “supposedly for behavior issues.” There was no official procedure or notification given to Brandon’s or the other students’ parents.
Those who stood in doorways to keep our children out are now standing in the doorway to prevent our children from leaving schools that are failing them.
A mother from Washington, D.C., Tequaila Harris, recently told me that when students from her mostly-black neighborhood attend a nearby integrated middle school, they “get put in a separate class…they put all our kids together in the same class as if they’re dumb.”
How is this possible in our so-called post-racial society?
For one, minority students—still disproportionately more likely to be impoverished than white children—often have no recourse, no exit from schools that treat them poorly.
While parents with resources are expected to choose the best school they can for their child, either by paying tuition for a private school or moving to neighborhoods where school quality is dependable, poor students are expected to remain in even the most dismal, dysfunctional schools for the sake of maintaining the system.
As Virginia Walden-Ford, one of the early students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, sees it, “Those who stood in doorways to keep our children out are now standing in the doorway to prevent our children from leaving schools that are failing them.”
This is why Walden-Ford organized parents to advocate for Zelman v. Simmons-Harris and has helped fight for school voucher programs in cities like Cleveland, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., which now benefit tens of thousands of low-income, mostly minority students.
Compared to traditional public and charter school enrollment, the total number of children exercising school choice via voucher programs is tiny (about 200k compared to almost 50m and 2m respectively), but as the paradigm shifts around what constitutes public education in America—and as the public’s demand for education equality grows—expect to see more of these programs reaching a growing numbers of students.