Two milestones in the history of American education are converging this spring. The second is reshaping the legacy of the first.
The first landmark moment will arrive May 17, with the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down “separate but equal” segregation in public education. The second watershed will follow in June, with the completion of what is likely to be the last school year ever in which a majority of America’s K-12 public-school students are white.
That demographic transformation is both reinvigorating and reframing Brown‘s fundamental goal of ensuring educational opportunity for all Americans. The unanimous 1954 Brown decision was a genuine hinge in American history. Although its mandate to dismantle segregated public schools initially faced “massive resistance” across the South, the ruling provided irresistible moral authority to the drive for legal equality that culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts a decade later.
Coming nearly 60 years after the Supreme Court had upheld segregation in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren’s ringing opinion in Brown was the belated midcourse correction that began America’s transformation into a truly multiracial world nation.
But a distinct note of disenchantment is surfacing as scholars and advocates assess Brown‘s legacy. “Brown was unsuccessful in its purported mission — to undo the school segregation that persists as a central feature of American public education today,” Richard Rothstein, a veteran liberal educational analyst, declared in a paper this month.
That seems excessively pessimistic. Just before Brown, only about one in seven African-Americans, compared with more than one in three whites, held a high school degree. Today, the Census Bureau reports, the share of all African-American adults holding high school degrees (85 percent) nearly equals the share of whites (89 percent); blacks have slightly passed whites on that measure among young adults ages 25 to 29.
Before Brown, only about one in 40 African-Americans earned a college degree. Now more than one in five hold one. Educational advances have also keyed other gains, including the growth of a substantial black middle-class and health gains that have cut the white-black gap in life expectancy at birth by more than half since 1950.
Yet many other disparities remain. Whites (especially from more affluent families) still complete college at much higher rates than African-Americans. That’s one reason census figures show the median income for African-American families remains only about three-fifths that for whites, not much better than in 1967. Hispanics, now the largest minority group, are likewise making clear gains but still trail whites and blacks on the key measures of educational attainment, on some fronts substantially.
Brown‘s core mission of encouraging integration can best be defined as unfinished. Many civil-rights advocates, such as Gary Orfield, codirector of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, argue that after gains through the late 1980s, the public-school system is undergoing a “resegregation” that has left African-American and Latino students “experiencing more isolation “¦ [than] a generation ago.” Other analysts question whether segregation is worsening, but no one denies that racial and economic isolation remains daunting: One recent study found that three-fourths of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics attend schools where a majority of the students qualify as low-income.
The second big educational milestone arriving this spring should recast the debate over the first. From Brown to the ongoing affirmative-action debates that the Supreme Court revisited again this week, fairness has been the strongest argument for measures meant to provide educational chances for all. But as our society diversifies, broadening the circle of opportunity has become a matter not only of equity but also of competitiveness.
The National Center for Educational Statistics recently projected that minorities will become a majority of the K-12 public-school student body for the first time in 2014 — and that majority will steadily widen. As recently as 1997, whites represented more than three-fifths of public-school students. This transformation isn’t just limited to a few immigration hubs: Minorities now represent a majority in 310 of the 500 largest public-school districts, federal statistics show.
These minority young people are the nation’s future workers, consumers, and taxpayers. If more of them don’t obtain the education and training to reach the middle class, the U.S. “will be a poorer and less competitive society,” says Rice University sociologist Steven Murdock, former Census Bureau director under George W. Bush and the author of Changing Texas, a recent book on that state’s demographic transformation.
The increasing diversity and shrinking white share of America’s youth population complicates Brown‘s original aim of promoting integrated schools. But that change only adds greater urgency to the decision’s broader goal of ensuring all young people the opportunity to develop their talents.
The barriers to fulfilling that vision, from family breakdown to persistent residential and educational segregation, remain formidable. The difference is that as our society grows inexorably more diverse, the consequences of failing to overcome those barriers are rising — for all Americans. “These are realities,” says Murdock, “that we are going to have to live with whether we are left, right, or in between.”
What We're Following See More »
Just a day after Donald Trump called her a bigot, Hillary Clinton delivered a scathing speech tying Trump to the KKK and so-called “alt-right.” This new frontier of debate between the two candidates has emerged at a time when Trump has been seeking to appeal to minority voters, among whom he has struggled to garner support. Calling him “profoundly dangerous,” Clinton didn’t hold back on her criticisms of Trump. “He is taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party,” Clinton said.
Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump 51%-41% in a new Quinnipiac poll released today. Her lead shrinks to seven points when the third-party candidates are included. In that scenario, she leads 45%-38%, with Gary Johnson pulling 10% and Jill Stein at 4%.
Is the Clinton family backtracking on some of its promises to insulate the White House from the Clinton Foundation? Opposition researchers will certainly try to portray it that way. A foundation spokesman said yesterday that Chelsea Clinton will stay on its board, and that the "foundation’s largest project, the Clinton Health Access Initiative, might continue to accept foreign government and corporate funding."
"Four Iranian ships made reckless maneuvers close to a U.S. warship this week, the Pentagon said Thursday, in an incident that officials said could have led to dangerous escalation." The four Iranian vessels engaged in a "high-speed intercept" of a U.S. destroyer in the Strait of Hormuz. A Navy spokesman said the Iranina actions "created a dangerous, harassing situation that could have led to further escalation including additional defensive measures" by the destroyer.