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60th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education

60th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education: One of the landmark civil rights cases of our time

Saturday 17 May marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark civil rights case, Brown v Board of Education, the US Supreme Court’s 1954 decision that prohibited Southern states from segregating schools by race.

In a unanimous decision written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court annihilated the “separate but equal” doctrine previously sanctioned by the Supreme Court in 1896 that permitted states and school districts to designate some schools “whites only” and others “Negroes only”.

The decision fuelled a wave of freedom rides, sit-ins, voter registration efforts and many other actions leading ultimately to major civil rights legislation through the late 1950s and 1960s.

The plaintiffs’ chief attorney, Thurgood Marshall, later became the first African-American justice appointed to the Supreme Court, in 1967. He served on the Court for 24 years in a fruitless struggle to prevent the perpetuation of school segregation.

So, as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the decision, has the promise of Brown v Board of Education been met?

The unequivocal answer is No.

· Initial school integration gains following Brown stalled and black children are more racially and socio-economically isolated today than they were in the late 1960s.

· The academic achievement of African Americans has improved dramatically in recent decades, but whites’ has as well, so racial achievement gaps remain large.

· Inequalities in resources between schools has reduced but resource equality is insufficient; disadvantaged students require much greater resources than middle-class white students to prepare for success in school.

· Schools remain segregated today because neighbourhoods in which they are located are segregated.

As we consider the current wave of “education reform” ideas that is now unfolding in New Zealand, one of the most controversial is charter schools.

One unfortunate finding, that is not widely discussed, is the observation that charter schools in the USA are more segregated than traditional public schools, according to a 2010 report by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The Report found that 70% of black charter school students across the USA attended “racially isolated” schools, twice as many as the share in traditional public schools. A “racially isolated” school is where more than 90% of the students are from disadvantaged minority groups.

It is important to reflect back on the finding in Brown v Board of Education that “separate education facilities are inherently unequal”.

Proponents of charter schools in the USA believe they are giving opportunities to low-income and minority students that they otherwise would not have had.

But we need to be very clear that both the PISA international assessments and the work of the OECD on teacher quality underline very strongly that the socio-economic status of students and schools explain the vast majority of the variation in student performance.

That finding alone is certainly not a strong recommendation for policies that further increase the segregation of schools.

It is not that governments have an agenda to increase segregation. But it is important that government does not exacerbate the problem of segregation by ignoring the unintended consequences of its policies.

New Zealand has a proud record of quality public education for all. We must guard against any policy initiative that has the potential to fragment and weaken our education system.

Note: this release is based mainly on releases in the USA written by Richard Rothstein, of the Economic Policy Institute, and Iris C Rotberg, of George Washington University.


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