Seeking Counsel: Honoring Brown

By John W. Borkowski

How should public school districts celebrate the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education? Certainly, we should remind our students of the nation’s history of racial injustice and the great step forward represented by the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision outlawing legally mandated school segregation.

We should celebrate the progress in education and public life that has been achieved by the long civil rights struggle in which the Brown decision played an important legal and symbolic role.

But, our commemoration of Brown would be incomplete if we did not acknowledge the persistence of what is de facto segregation. This racial isolation is not legally mandated -- instead, it reflects residential patterns, private choices, and public policy decisions.

Over the past several decades, the percentage of African-American and Latino students attending racially or ethnically isolated schools has increased. And we know that racially, ethnically, or socioeconomically isolated schools generally lead to adverse educational consequences. While children from low-income households often need more educational resources and high-quality instruction, they frequently receive less. In the spirit of Brown, school boards should tackle this issue.

Over the past several years, voluntary efforts to promote desegregated schools have been deterred by the Supreme Court’s decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District. That 2007 decision struck down two voluntary desegregation plans that made school assignment decisions about individual students based on their race.

But school boards still have ample legal authority to promote diverse public schools through other means. Indeed, in Parents Involved, five members of the Supreme Court endorsed both promoting diversity and avoiding racial isolation as not only legitimate but also compelling governmental interests.

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