Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

One Step Forward, Half A Step Backward?

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

One Step Forward, Half A Step Backward?

Article excerpt

In the first 25 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down more than thirty cases involving desegregation of public school systems. Yet, over the past quarter of a century, the Court has not played much of a role in ensuring educational equity when dealing with segregated schools, resolving only six cases. The Court's lack of involvement in desegregation efforts has undoubtedly contributed to the fact that many school boards act as if Brown had never been decided. After reflecting on the status of school desegregation, the article concludes that while the Supreme Court and lower federal courts contributed a great deal toward the dismantling of desegregated school systems in the first 25 years after Brown, their actions in the last 25 years resulted in a situation of having the nation taking one step forward and half of a step backwards, because the very conditions that Brown sought to eliminate are unfortunately returning to the public schools. One can only hope that as the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of Brown, the Court will remain true to the spirit of this landmark case and its progeny by safeguarding equal educational opportunities for all students.

INTRODUCTION

On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court decided its most important education case, perhaps its most significant ruling, of all time. In a unanimous nine-to-nothing opinion in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) (Brown I), the Court held that the de jure segregation of public schools based on race deprived minority children of equal educational opportunities in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. A year later, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1955) (Brown II), the Court set about dismantling segregated school systems. While later cases attacked de facto and de jure segregation in schools as well as the wider arena of American society, Brown I remains the unchallenged catalyst for judicially initiated systemic change. Beginning with school desegregation and culminating in the Civil Rights Movement, Brown spawned an era of equal educational opportunities by heightening consciousness for protecting the rights of other disenfranchised groups, most notably women and students with disabilities.

In the first twenty-five years after Brown, the Supreme Court handed down more than 30 cases involving desegregation of public school systems (Russo, Harris, & Sandidge, 1994). Yet, over the past quarter of a century, the Supreme Court has played a diminished role in ensuring educational equity, resolving only six cases. The Court's lack of involvement in desegregation efforts has undoubtedly contributed to the fact that many school boards act as if Brown had never been decided. One can only hope that as the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of Brown, the Court will remain true to the spirit of this landmark case and its progeny by safeguarding equal educational opportunities for all students.

Ten years ago, in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Brown, this author and others (Russo, Harris, & Sandidge, 1994) reviewed more than three dozen cases on public school desegregation that the Court resolved in the 40 years since Brown I. Rather than cover the same ground, the essential purpose of this article is to pick up where the last one ended. The first and larger part of this article reviews litigation in the federal courts dealing with desegregation. The initial section of legal analysis reviews Supreme Court cases from the 1990s before examining lower federal court cases after the Court last acted, focusing on disputes over whether formerly segregated school systems achieved unitary. The latter part of the legal analysis highlights cases on unitary status because only by creating school systems that operate in such a fashion, meaning that schools function without regard to segregation by race by serving all children, can educators create the necessary pre-conditions for academic success. …

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