The Court’s Forgotten Promises

Court rulings are a step backwards from Brown v. Board of Education and report shows that it could be a severe blow to our educational system.

On the 50th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock High School, the Supreme Court has taken a decidedly backwards step in our nation’s pursuit of Brown v. Board of Education’s promise of equal, integrated public education by ruling against the voluntary efforts to integrate public schools in Louisville, KY and Seattle, WA in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education.

In doing so, the Court has accomplished a feat that contradicts an objective reading of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The 5-4 decision reflects the narrowest of Court majorities, but it has the potential to touch the lives of many by significantly limiting the ability of public school officials and their communities to consider race among other factors in taking needed steps to address the re-segregation of a critically important institution that is more segregated today than it was 30 years ago. Such a failure could profoundly limit many of our citizens’ opportunities to make meaningful contributions to strengthening our pluralistic democracy and ensuring our future economic prosperity.

The Court’s ruling today should not be viewed as the last word on this issue. Congress must act immediately to explore legislative solutions that further the goals of an integrated and quality public education for all students. Anything less would be a perversion of the principle of desegregated education represented by Brown and its progeny and would contradict the logic and the law that has guided our nation this far.

The Center for American Progress released a report last year considering—in light of these two Supreme Court cases—the educational consequences of the considerable racial segregation that remains in schools today and the controlled choice’s potential to address them.

The report provides a new, exhaustive analysis of racial segregation across the country. Using test score information required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the study analyzes the effects of segregation in more than 22,000 schools across the country that enroll more than 18 million students.

The new information is used to address two basic questions: First, do minority students learn more in integrated schools? Second, would racial integration improve the equity of learning outcomes in general and in the Louisville and Seattle districts that are the subjects of the Court case? The answers to these questions appear to be “yes.” Specifically:

  • African Americans and Hispanics learn more in integrated schools. Minorities attending integrated schools also perform better in college attendance and employment.
  • Controlled choice and other forms of desegregation benefit minority students.
  • Racial integration is a rare case where an educational policy appears to improve educational equity at little financial cost.

The Court’s rejection of controlled choice could therefore put at risk the racial considerations in NCLB. Moreover, as a practical matter, if race is going to be a factor used to measure school success, then it stands to reason that schools should be able to consider race through such programs as controlled choice when addressing apparent school failures.

After a half-century of court cases and new policies, the nation still finds itself with highly segregated and inequitable schools. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling we can not continue to accept these inequities or move forward in fulfilling the promise of Brown and the moral and educational imperatives of racial integration.

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