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Battling Over Brown v. Board, More than 50 Years Later

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Cross-posted from RaceWire

By Tammy Johnson

Welcome to the battle royal. Today is the anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, an annual heavy weight match where race and public education claim the center ring. In one corner are Brown’s defenders, bemoaning the country’s failure to carry out the order to educate every child regardless of race. In the opposing corner are the prosecutors of public schools, claiming that the system’s failures stem from its very acknowledgment of race, rather than from the racial disparities themselves. Taking hits from all sides are millions of children of color.

So was Brown v. Board a failed attempt at social engineering? Or was its solution poisoned in its infancy by political maneuvering? With every passing anniversary researchers, lawyers, policymakers and education advocates come out swinging with their views on the aftermath. But there are only two questions that really matter: Is race still a factor in whether a child receives a quality education? And if so, what should we do about it?

Let’s deal with what’s real. Race matters. A 2009 Education Department report bears this out:

* Between 1972 and 2007, the percentage of public school students who were White decreased from 78 to 56 percent. During this period, the percentage of students from other racial/ethnic groups increased from 22 to 44 percent.
* In 2008, the high school completion rates for Blacks and Latinos remained significantly below those of Whites (88 and 68 vs. 94).
* The national average reading score of 4th graders was higher in 2007 than in 1992, by 4 points. In 2007, at the 4th-grade level Blacks scored, on average, 27 points lower than Whites and Latinos scored, on average, 26 points lower.

Add to all of this the resegregation of Black and brown kids to metropolitan schools and White (more affluent) families to the suburbs; the failure of flavor-of-the-year reform schemes (mayoral take overs, private charters, etc.), and the one-two punch of the economic downturn and state budget cuts and we have one hot mess of a fight.

The 1952 Warren Court knew that America’s racist public education system had to be changed. And although it only stunned the monster, Brown did become the legal precedent that paved the way for the dismantling of Jim Crow and the establishment of civil rights law as we know it. Similarly, today's Brown discussions must evoke a broader vision about the schools that we need to create in order to produce the society that we all want to live in.

There are plenty of areas that need our attention, but we should strategically focus on the player that data and decades of experience have proven essential: the teacher. Can we recruit a workforce that reflects the communities of the children they teach? Can we support them with quality and relevant curriculum, peer mentorship, decent facilities and adequate compensation? Can we ensure that they are armed with knowledge, credentials and cultural competency needed to teach demographically expanding classrooms? Can we?

Shifting our weight from the busing blame game to making a real plan for teaching and leaning won’t be easy. But when that bell rings and race comes out swinging, America’s old bob-and-weave will just no longer due.