60 years after Brown, integration is falling apart

Story highlights

  • Donna Brazile: Students of color increasingly attend schools that don't reflect nation's diversity
  • Public schools in many cities outperform those supported by vouchers, she says
  • School privatization, she says, results in more segregation, not improved education

On Saturday, we will commemorate the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed school segregation. Across the country, people are reflecting on the current state of educational opportunities for children of color.

In Milwaukee, parents, educators, students and community members are coming together to support educational opportunities for young people, and to challenge the increasing segregation and lack of resources facing young people of color today. I will join them in that celebration.

But Milwaukee is among the most racially and economically segregated major metropolitan regions in the country. It registers the largest discrepancy in employment rates between African-Americans and whites. Wisconsin has the widest gap in test scores between black and white students.

The problems in Milwaukee and Wisconsin are not unique. In cities across the country, students of color increasingly attend schools that do not reflect the diversity of our national community. The biggest metro areas in the Northeast and Midwest have been epicenters of re-segregation. In the 1990s and 2000s, school districts across the South, after being released from Brown-era, court-enforced integration, began gerrymandering school attendance zones, effectively separating black and white students.

Donna Brazile

Today, black students in the South attend majority-black schools at levels not observed for 40 years. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for example, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks like Brown never even happened.

The result is that the achievement gap, which steadily decreased during integration, is widening as re-segregation occurs.

Integrated schools help students achieve academic success in the present and personal success in the future. Students of color who attended integrated schools in the decades immediately following Brown were more likely to graduate high school, go to college, earn higher wages, live healthier lifestyles and not have a criminal record than their peers in segregated schools. (Diverse schools can also decrease prejudice and teach all students how to navigate an increasingly diverse nation.)

Unfortunately, many localities are embracing vouchers and charter schools as silver bullets for addressing persistent achievement gaps. Milwaukee has the largest and oldest voucher school program in the country, which funnels public dollars to private, often sectarian, schools. In 2011, Indiana created the nation's first statewide voucher program, and Louisiana followed suit in 2012. Charter schools have increased dramatically in the past decade; from the 1999-2000 school year to the 2010-2011 one, public charter school enrollment increased from 300,000 to 1.8 million.

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Vouchers and charter schools just don't live up to the hype. In New Orleans, students using vouchers to attend private schools have not advanced to grade-level work any faster during the first two years of the program than public school students. A recent study found students in voucher schools are performing worse on academic benchmarks than students in Milwaukee Public Schools. And a national study comparing charter and normal public schools of similar demographics found that 29% of charter schools reported academic improvements significantly higher than public schools. Forty percent of charter schools reported no difference in academic performance, and 31% reported a performance worse than their public school counterparts.

Sixty years later, "separate and unequal" is still alive.

To fix the problem, we must recognize the problem. First, privatizing our school systems results in increased segregation, not improved opportunities. Whether in New Orleans or Philadelphia or Detroit or New York, legislative schemes perpetuate separate and unequal by privatizing large swaths of public school districts -- and in some cases, entire districts.

Second, education doesn't take place in a vacuum. Students and their families need access to health care, decent wages and affordable housing in integrated neighborhoods. Thus, Brown's legacy includes economic improvements for children and families.

Third, neither high-quality public schools nor economic improvements can occur when voters are disenfranchised. Only the right to vote protects access to education and movement toward economic improvement. Yet 34 states -- most under Republican control -- have passed laws to make it harder for minorities, the elderly, and young people to vote, including so-called voter ID laws and regulations that limit early voting.

The economic and racial inequities that existed 60 years ago persist in our communities today. They must be addressed. In the spirit of Brown, students, parents and educators are demanding solutions that go beyond the dysfunctional "education reforms" and address a wide range of community concerns, from stopping school privatization to providing universal early childhood education to raising the minimum wage.

School integration did not come to be the day after the Brown ruling was issued. Progress took years, and it took passion, strength and courage from a large group of committed individuals.

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, it's time for us to take a hard look at the separate and unequal conditions that still exist in our schools and our communities, and rededicate ourselves to fulfilling the promise of equal opportunity for all.

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