Separate Schools Don't Have to Be Unequal

Cheryl Brown Henderson lately has had much to say about the sorry state of education for many black students. She bluntly says that many public schools are educating black children for second-class citizenship. These are harsh and ironic words considering that fifty years ago, her father, the Reverend Oliver Brown, sued the Topeka, Kansas school board to get his daughter admitted to an all-white public school. His suit became the historic Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case that knocked out legal school segregation.

Before the Brown decision, school integration was a dream deferred for millions of blacks, and after Brown became the stuff of so much hope and promise.

Today, it's a dream that's dead for most blacks. In an April Associated Press Poll, a bare majority of blacks said that integration has improved the education of their children. It's no mystery why so many are skeptical and disillusioned about integration's lofty but dashed promise.

According to a report by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project, the nation's big city public schools are more racially segregated than they were two decades ago. The students in these schools are poorer than students in predominantly, or exclusively white schools, and they do far worse in reading and math tests than non-black or black students at racially mixed schools.

The black and Latino students who attend racially isolated schools are not in the schools because of Jim Crow segregationist laws, or failed school bussing policies. Two decades of pro-integration court decisions, limited bussing programs, civil rights legislation, and the election and the appointment of soaring numbers of blacks and Latinos to boards of education in major cities have racially remade the face of public education. Black and Latino public school superintendents and top administrators are now fixtures in most urban school districts. And, President Bush's Education Secretary, Rod Paige is an African-American. This should have long ago rendered public school segregation an historic oddity.

But the bitter truth is that fifty years after the Brown decision, segregated public schools while no longer the law of the land are the fact of the land.

The deep persistence of housing discrimination, underclass poverty, the near universal refusal of federal and state courts to get involved in any more school desegregation cases, and the continuing flight to the suburbs of white, black and Latino middle-income persons insures that even more poor black and Latino students will be perpetually trapped in segregated schools. The hodge-podge of panaceas that politicians and educators ladle out to raise minority achievement levels such as school vouchers, fracturing urban districts, a wholesale dump of incompetent teachers and bureaucrats, magnet schools, and Bush's badly under-funded and increasingly resisted No Child Left Behind Act, have only marginally raised achievement scores.

But none of this should mean that minority students stuck in segregated schools are permanently doomed to educational failure. During the pre-Brown years when schools were legally segregated, the overwhelming majority of blacks clung hard to the ideal that education was their children's passport out of poverty and segregation. Generations of black and Latino students attended de-facto segregated inner city schools in the North and legally segregated schools in the South. Most graduated, went on to college and became successful in business and the professions.

The key to their success was the attitude and dedication of their teachers.

They buried the myth that black and Latino students can't or won't learn. They expected and demanded that their students perform up to the same level as white students. They challenged the students to learn, set specific goals, demanded their full participation in classroom work, gave them positive and continual direction and reinforcement. Parents, administrators and the students themselves also played a big part in their educational uplift by erecting high standards of excellence and refusing to accept anything less than that standard.

Countless studies have shown that while money, modern facilities, and up to date texts and equipment are vital to educational performance, the competence, quality and dedication of teachers is still the single most crucial factor that will make or break a child's education.

And there is much evidence that they desperately want to learn. In a comprehensive survey of student attitudes in fifteen school districts nationally in 2002, the Minority Student Achievement Network, an Illinois based educational advocacy group, found that black and Latino students are as motivated, study as hard, and are as serious about graduating as whites.

Though racial segregation in schools has worsened many black and Latino students in these schools have shown they can learn, master standard English and math, and score high on performance tests if provided adequate resources and support. Fifty years after Brown, racially separate schools are still a fact of life for many students, but they don't have to be unequal.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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