Sixty Years After ‘Brown,’ Poor U.S. Schools Are Still Separate and Unequal

A coalition of civil rights groups is demanding parity, but no change is in sight.

(Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Nov 6, 2014· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s a bedrock lesson taught in every American history class: The father of Kansas schoolgirl Linda Brown sued the local school board over segregated, underfunded conditions. Yet 60 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, a coalition of major civil rights groups says the nation’s poor and minority children still face separate and unequal conditions in the classroom.

The coalition—including the NAACP, the Advancement Project, the Urban League ,and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights—has demanded that President Barack Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and congressional leaders do more to increase funding and educational opportunities for poor students of color. That includes attacking the stubborn achievement gap between white and minority students by revamping the system of educational funding, bringing quality teachers to underserved schools, and ensuring that disadvantaged public school students have the same opportunities as their more affluent white peers.

“The demand for our schools to meet new college-and-career-ready standards is happening in the wake of a record number of children living in poverty and an increasingly diverse student population,” says the letter, which was made public last week. “Students of color represent more than 50 percent of youth and are more than twice as likely to attend segregated schools.”

The situation isn’t much better for immigrant children, according to the letter: “Second language learners whose first language is not English now represent 10 percent of all public school students nationwide,” and many of them tend to live close to the poverty line.

“Equal and equitable educational opportunity for each and every child in America is not happening under our current education and accountability system, which is leaving millions of low-income students and students of color behind,” said Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, speaking on behalf of the coalition.

A national report card on school funding by the Education Law Center “identified four ‘fairness indicators’—funding level, funding distribution relative to poverty, state fiscal effort, and public school coverage,” Morial wrote in a follow-up editorial for Common Dreams, a progressive website. “Based on those measures, only Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Iowa, Wyoming, and New Jersey are doing ‘relatively well’ on funding fairness. But even in those states, irregularities persist.”

“Most states are failing,” Morial continued. “Instead of progressive funding, some states have a regressive system, meaning districts with higher poverty rates actually receive less funding than more affluent districts. Public schools are chronically underfunded throughout the South and in many Western states.”

Statistics confirm the scenario: More than 40 percent of all black schoolchildren attend a high-poverty school, nearly five times the rate of whites. Moreover, recent studies show the nation’s schools tend to be segregated by race, with a greater proportion of black and Latino kids attending majority-minority poor schools; when that happens, the schools also tend to have a high rate of poverty.

Study after study shows that funding disparities exist across the board for poor students who tend to be black and Hispanic. The education department’s Office for Civil Rights has released a series of reports tying the black-white achievement gap to unequal funding in most of the nation’s school districts.

“This problem has been around forever,” said Elaine Weiss, national coordinator for Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, an education reform organization. “I would argue it’s the same reason we have so many hungry people in America: We don’t take care of poor people in this country.”

Under-resourced schools are shortchanged in nearly every area of a school’s operation, Weiss said, from curricula with fewer options for high-achieving students to facilities that are older and less well-maintained than those in more affluent districts.

“In some poor districts, the kind of math class they need to qualify for college isn’t available,” she said. “One student even reported, ‘You won’t believe this, but we’re supposed to take our phys ed classes online.’ ”

The chief reason for the disparity is local control of school funding, usually based on area property taxes, Weiss said. The more affluent a community, the more likely the schools are to get adequate funding, “which means rich kids go to rich schools, and poor kids go to poor schools.”

Some states have tried to address the disparity by creating a system of uniform, equal funding for school districts, she said. But because poor communities tend to lack political and economic clout, new rules for funding aren’t always enforced.

The answer is in a sustained approach to school funding that not only brings parity to poor schools but addresses other problems that get in the way of learning, Weiss said. Students in underserved communities tend to have problems outside school, including hunger, inadequate health care, and parents or caretakers with substance-abuse problems.

“We certainly should be paying attention to these issues,” Weiss said. “Parity isn’t necessarily the answer. We need to be funding schools according to their students’ needs.”