In 1954 the Supreme Court declared that public education is “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”That landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education stood for the proposition that the federal government would no longer allow states and municipalities to deny equal educational opportunity to a historically oppressed racial minority. Ruling unanimously, the justices overturned the noxious concept that “separate” education could ever be “equal.”
Yet today, nearly 60 years later, our schools remain separate and unequal. Almost 40 percent of black and Hispanic students attend schools where more than 90 percent of students are nonwhite. The average white student attends a school where 77 percent of his or her peers are also white. Schools today are “as segregated as they were in the 1960s before busing began.” We are living in a world in which schools are patently separate.
In Brown the Court focused on the detrimental impact of legal separation—the fact that official segregation symbolized and reinforced the degraded status of blacks in America. Today’s racial separation in schools may not have the formal mandate of local law, but it just as surely reflects and reinforces lingering status differences between whites and nonwhites by enabling a system of public education funding that shortchanges students of color.
Separate will always be unequal. But just how unequal is the education we offer our students of color today? This paper answers this question using one small but important measure—per-pupil state and local spending.
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