Separate Is Still Unequal

Sixty years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, many students of color still have to fight for their right to a high-quality public education.

Fourth-grade students listen to their teacher at a school in Hempstead, New York, September 2015. (Getty/Yana Paskova/The Washington Post)
Fourth-grade students listen to their teacher at a school in Hempstead, New York, September 2015. (Getty/Yana Paskova/The Washington Post)

For many Americans, segregation is a concept of the past, the term conjuring up powerful images of the Little Rock Nine integrating into an all-white school and of the removal of the signs designating drinking fountains and bus stops as “colored” or “white.” But it is naive to believe that a single Supreme Court ruling ended inequality in the U.S. education system.

Located only a few blocks apart, P.S. 199 on West 70th Street and P.S. 191 on West 61st Street in Manhattan represent the seemingly perpetual problem facing the nation: unequal education. At P.S. 199, “test scores are high, the students are mostly white and well off,” and the school “can raise $800,000 a year” to pay for luxuries such as a resident chef. At P.S. 191—which has neither a library nor an art teacher—“87 percent of the students are black or Hispanic and 84 percent receive some form of public assistance.” Only slightly more than one-tenth of P.S. 191 students pass the state exams. The striking inequalities between these two New York public schools can be seen across the United States today.

Low-income students and students of color are often left behind

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education ruled that separate was inherently unequal and put an end to dejure segregation, many students of color—particularly black, Hispanic, and some Asian American and Pacific Islander students—still have to fight for their constitutional right to a high-quality public education in what has emerged as a system of de facto school segregation.

Today, more black and Latino students end up in predominantly minority classrooms in large metropolitan areas. A federal report found that 57 percent of black students and 60 percent of Hispanic students were enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools in which enrollment was 75 percent or more students of color. By contrast, only 5 percent of white students attended schools where enrollment was 75 percent or more students of color. Similarly, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles concluded that around 1991, all U.S. regions that had been ordered to desegregate under Brown v. Board of Education experienced an increase in black student population in schools where enrollment was 90 to 100 percent students of color. Similarly, all regions but the Northeast saw an increase in Latino student population in schools where enrollment was 90 to 100 percent students of color.

For most public schools in urban areas, segregation can largely be attributed to housing patterns. As a report by the National Research Council notes, “compared with Whites of similar social status, Blacks tend to live in systematically disadvantaged neighborhoods, even within suburbs.” Unfortunately, these housing patterns resulted in the segregation of major cities, which caused districts and schools to follow.

Many schools also face challenges providing high-quality education. A recent Center for American Progress report found that “students attending high-poverty schools … only have a 68 percent chance of graduating. In comparison, students attending low-poverty schools … have a 91 percent chance of graduating.” The relationship between socioeconomic status and race should not be ignored. In May 2016, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that, compared with public schools in the same district where the majority of the students were not students of color schools with 75 to 100 percent low-income black or Hispanic students “offered disproportionately fewer math, science, and college preparatory courses and had disproportionately higher rates of students who were held back in 9th grade, suspended, or expelled.”

Overall, discrepancies in academic performance between white and black or Hispanic students across all socioeconomic levels show that there is a gap in achievement levels. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that, from the late 1970s to 2012, white students outperformed both black and Hispanic students in math and reading on average.

Policymakers must work to support all students

Despite evidence that primarily black and Hispanic students are underperforming in comparison with white students—largely due to the unequal, segregated schools they attend—efforts to support the reintegration of public schools have been thwarted. The 2007 ruling, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, restricted the explicit consideration of race in plans to integrate schools. Since then, some districts have made an effort to diversify classrooms, though often without overt reference to the return of racial segregation to schools. In response to these reintegration efforts, some parents have attempted to secede from their school districts.

The first step toward creating effective integration programs is to recognize the extent of the issue at hand. The GAO has worked with both the Department of Education and the Department of Justice to recommend they “routinely analyze” and collect federal civil rights data to uncover disparities among the education of different racial groups. In the meantime, however, education officials at the state and local levels should be required to track and analyze enrollment patterns within schools in order to provide equitable resources to those serving low-income students and students of color. This would better prepare districts to address the issue of reintegration as well as help create a level of accountability.

For too many years, low-income students of color have been deprived of high-quality public education. It is time for the nation’s public schools to ensure that students are given the support they need to succeed.

Angelina Quezada is a former intern for K-12 Education at the Center for American Progress.

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Angelina Quezada