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Brown v. Board of Education: Then and now

From CNN's Brian Todd in Washington:

Brown v. Board of Education

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Rod Paige remembers it all too well -- the all-white school, two miles down the road from his own school in Monticello, Mississippi. The school that had everything his didn't. Two miles away, he says, that might as well have been 200.

"It was a source of a good deal of bitterness, anger, frustration that we were not quite as worthy as others," says Paige, who now serves as President Bush's secretary of education.

This was the South in the first half of the 20th century. Laws separated whites from people of color virtually everywhere.

Vernon Jordan, a prominent Washington attorney, remembers it too.

Growing up in Atlanta in the 1930s and 1940s, he once had a summer job driving a white banker around town -- a man who was astonished to learn that Jordan could read.

"Black people, because of their blackness, [had] ... inferior and separate facilities," says Jordan of the pre-Brown situation in the country.

Jordan and Paige thought that world would come crashing down on May 17, 1954. The case: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In just 13 paragraphs, the highest court in the land called segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

Paige, then a 20-year-old junior at the all-black Jackson State University in Mississippi, stayed up all night talking to his friends about how the world was going to change for the better.

Now, in his own words, "How naive."

"The month that followed and the year that followed, told us that that was not the case, that there was still much work to be done," says Paige.

Paige went on to become a teacher, administrator, and now, U.S. education secretary, a position he says he never would have dreamed of before Brown.

Paige, Jordan, and younger African-American leaders agree, Brown was a success in its core purpose. It created the crucial opening. The legal barriers to equal education were gone.

But 50 years later, other barriers remain. Barriers based on income.

"The average existence for a black or Latino child in public school today is one where the majority of their peers are poor. And for white children, the average experience is exactly the opposite," says Sheryll Cashin, author of "The Failures of Integration."

Cashin is one of those who point directly to economic disparities in her argument that public schools are still segregated.

Another is Tony Sawyer, superintendent of schools in the birthplace of this whole movement: Topeka, Kansas.

"There is a segregation regarding funding because we are very knowledgeable of the fact that the tax base is very different in any inner city than it is in a suburb," says Sawyer.

A lower tax-base, less funding for the local school, lower salaries for less-qualified teachers -- observers say this spirals into lower test-scores from poorer students with reading and other skilllevels far below their wealthier counterparts.

"I think the biggest hurdle has been the middle and upper-class leaving the city. Because they take resources out, which leaves us with limited resources to maintain our infrastructure in cities," says Topeka Mayor James McClinton.

The Bush administration's idea is to test public schools, rate them and allow students the chance to transfer to a better school if theirs don't meet certain standards.

But Paige agrees, schools in lower-income districts must be fixed first. The achievement gap won't narrow until the economic gap does. Perhaps then, the vision of Brown v. Board of Education will be fulfilled.

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