Sixty years ago next month, the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ended school segregation in the South, but the impact of that ruling isn't readily apparent in schools today. A new report from the Economic Policy Institute argues that the Brown decision helped launch the civil rights movement and brought attention to the unfairness of separate but equal, in the long run it failed to achieve its main goal — desegregating schools. "The typical black student now attends a school where only 29 percent of his or her fellow students are white, down from 36 percent in 1980," according to the Institute's Richard Rothstein. A large part of the reason that America's schools are segregated is because America's neighborhoods are segregated.
While the circumstances of black students have improved dramatically since 1954, they have improved for white students as well. And even if low-income schools gain access to the resources they need — "high-quality early childhood programs... high-quality after-school and summer programs; full-service school health clinics; more skilled teachers; and smaller classes" — more integrated schools are key. Rothstein argues that fixing lapses in neighborhood integration policies is key to improving Brown v. Board's results. "Education policy is housing policy."
On Thursday ProPublica published a long, detailed look at the resegregation of schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as experienced by three generations. ProPublica's Nikole Hannah-Jones also points out that most studies show it's concentrations of poor students that causes the most problems, and "low-income students placed in middle-income schools show marked academic progress."
James Dent went to high school after Brown but before school integration kicked in. His daughter Melissa Dent attended an integrated and thriving Central High School in Tuscaloosa during the late '80s. Then courts began releasing schools from desegregation orders. "A separate 2011 study in the American Economic Journal found that within 10 years of being released, school districts unwound about 60 percent of the integration they had achieved under court order," according to ProPublica. Central is now 99 percent black. "In Tuscaloosa today, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened," writes Jones.
Rothstein advocates changes in housing policy, but school choice is one education reform idea that has been promoted as an end to segregation by both parties — if schools are segregated because neighborhoods are segregated, then allowing kids to go to any school they want (and take their federal money with them) would allow students from low-income schools to go to better ones.
The difference between the Republican and Democratic plan, as Vox's Libby Nelson explains, is that Republicans emphasize a voucher program, which would allow students to take their federal school money and go to private and parochial schools. That would lead to more segregation, as the schools of Tuscaloosa saw — the more integrated a public school becomes, the more likely white parents are to send their kids to private schools.