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Brown vs. Board of Education Remains Unrealized

"In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."

Brown vs. Board of Education:

Read the entire decision:

The words come from the U.S. Supreme Court's unanimous decision in 1954 that segregating schoolchildren by race was unconstitutional.

Fifty years later, the words still seem clear, the idea straightforward.

But the path America has taken as a result of that decision has been just the opposite. Difficult, convoluted.

And equality still eludes us; the pursuit of it perplexes us. We shall overcome someday? The day has not come yet and, in important ways, it doesn't seem close.

The urgency of addressing the gap between the accomplishments of minority students and white students in school - and between the economic futures of each - is indisputable. The relationship between education and success has never been greater.

That carries even greater emphasis in the Milwaukee area. For one thing, the portion of the metropolitan Milwaukee population that is black or Hispanic is rising and the future for the community as a whole is inevitably tied to the future of such large parts of the whole.

For another, there is growing evidence that the gap between black and white in Wisconsin - not just Milwaukee - is among the largest in the United States. It seems surprising in a Northern state with a progressive tradition, but consider:

In data on test scores recently released by the federal government, the difference in performance of white and black eighth-graders on math and reading was larger in Wisconsin than anywhere else in the U.S.

In fact, a higher percentage of black eighth-graders from Wisconsin scored "below basic" - the lowest category - in both reading and math than in any other state. In math, 76% of black Wisconsin eighth-graders in the test sample scored "below basic," compared with 61% nationally. (White students from Wisconsin performed in line with white students from around the U.S.)

A recent, privately funded study concluded that the gap between white and black high school graduation rates was bigger in Wisconsin than anywhere else.

Previous studies said that the gap between whites and blacks in Wisconsin when it comes to incarceration rates was the largest in the U.S.; the same goes for the gap in approval rates for mortgage applications in the Milwaukee area. While researchers dispute whether Milwaukee is one of the nation's most segregated cities, there is no doubt that, even with a growing number of exceptions, racial separation is the predominant pattern for neighborhoods.

This year will bring a wide array of efforts to mark the 50th anniversary of the school desegregation decision. But "celebration" is unlikely to be a word used often, because any discussion of how far things have come can only bring a discussion of how far they have not.

"Two steps forward, three steps backward."

The words come from Betty Smith, head of Milwaukee Catalyst, an education advocacy group. It's her response to the question: What is the legacy of the school desegregation decision?

The case, known as Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, overturned the Supreme Court's ruling of 1896 that having separate but equal facilities for people of different races was constitutional - a ruling that had sanctioned a way of life that was definitely separate but not equal.

In relatively slow motion ("all deliberate speed," the court called it in a 1955 follow-up opinion), Brown brought sweeping change to education across the United States. Court-ordered desegregation unfolded over the next decade in the South and through the 1960s and '70s elsewhere.

The Brown decision provided a spark for the entire civil rights movement. The following years brought lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides and marches, courage, tragedy and accomplishment, particularly in the South but echoing loudly across America. A set of civil rights laws passed in the mid-1960s and the launching of a federal "War on Poverty" fueled hope that the gap between the races and between rich and poor would show real signs of closing, and closing fairly soon.

Smith says the Brown decision meant black people could go through the door of schools and other places. "But it didn't mean people were prepared to receive you," she said.

She says changes in education as a result of the Brown decision were done "the best that people knew to do - and sometimes that's not good enough."

"Is it better? It's not better, and anybody who's got two eyes knows it's not better."

The words come from Clayborn Benson, executive director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society. He refers specifically to life in the area around the society's museum at N. 26th and W. Center streets, one of the city's most troubled areas.

But the message resonates across many other neighborhoods and many issues - education, jobs, housing, safety, family stability.

Despite many individual exceptions, there is no escaping the generalization that blacks in Milwaukee and most everywhere else are on the short end of all of those things, and there is little evidence that the sense of hope attached to improving the picture is very healthy.

Does racial equality mean equal opportunity? Equal results? Equal when everything else is factored in?

Racial inequality is easier to define: There are gaps between races on just about every measure.

"Fifty years later, we're having just about the same conversation."

The words come from Stan Johnson, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

Certainly, America has made progress and a lot has changed. Barriers have fallen. There are shining examples of success on many fronts. You see faces of color in far more places, including some of the most powerful and prominent spots in America. Once all-white bastions of industry, recreation and community have become integrated.

But paint racial equality in broad strokes, and who would call it a satisfying picture?

In Milwaukee, an epic effort to bring the city an open housing law in the late 1960s, including marches for 200 consecutive days, eventually brought such a law. But did it bring open housing if you define it as a metropolitan housing pattern that is colorblind?

The main legacy of the Brown decision in Milwaukee was a ruling by federal judge John W. Reynolds in 1976 that the public school system was unconstitutionally segregated. The result was a plan focused mainly on specialty and magnet schools, largely voluntary busing of white students and largely involuntary busing of black students.

The plan was implemented peacefully - unlike in some cities - and it led to creation of some of the best schools in the city. Rufus King High School, with its highly regarded college preparatory curriculum, and Golda Meir Elementary for gifted and talented children are two examples.

But when the desegregation plan went into effect 27 years ago, the Milwaukee Public Schools system was 60% white. It is now about 15% white. There are relatively few schools in the city that have substantial enrollment of both white and black students.

While the number of black children in suburban schools has gone up, because of black families moving to the suburbs and the voluntary city-suburban integration program known as Chapter 220, the numbers remain comparatively small. What's more, Chapter 220 participation is falling, and teaching staffs remain heavily white.

"Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other 'tangible' factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does."

The words come again from 1954 and the Brown decision, which stated clearly the belief that integration was itself an important step toward raising the quality of education of black children.

But interest in integration has waned, both in the Milwaukee area and nationally, and quite notably among many blacks who do not agree with the premise that black children need to go to school with white children to achieve educational equality.

In many places, including Milwaukee, the emphasis now is on finding ways to provide quality education across the board. Neighborhood schools are back on the agenda, and many parents and community leaders in minority areas are assertively seeking good schools for their children without counting integration as a factor in their search.

Yet there remains the huge gap between the accomplishments of black and white students. It is arguably the single most troubling and urgent issue in American education.

"The results are unambiguous. In all 14 correlates of achievement, there were gaps between the minority and majority student populations."

The words come from Paul Barton, author of a recent report by the Educational Testing Service, the country's largest private educational testing and measurement organization. In the dry language of research, Barton reports that the service checked out 14 different factors, ranging from weight at birth to qualifications of teachers to television viewing habits at home, and found that minority students overall are on the undesirable end of every one.

"The gaps in student achievement mirror inequalities in those aspects of school, early life, and home circumstances that research has linked to achievement," the report said.

Elizabeth Burmaster, the state's superintendent of schools, says, "I believe that in Wisconsin, the gap is very directly correlated to economic disadvantage."

There is no question it is true. Low-income kids do not do as well as high-income kids on standardized tests or in graduation rates or other measures of success in school.

But it is also true that even if you adjust the data to account for income or most any other factor, a gap remains. The black-white test gap does exist. Why that is so is one of the most perplexing aspects of the struggle to put education of blacks and whites on "equal terms," to use the phrase the Supreme Court used.

"The appalling performance of urban school systems has proved remarkably resistant to change."

The words come from Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. They reflect Greene's own views - he is a prominent advocate of school choice plans - but they make an important general point.

While many things have improved in cities across America in recent years, including crime rates, economic investment, general vitality of downtown areas and decreasing welfare rolls, the actual results of the education system, in the broadest picture, have not changed much. That is particularly so when it comes to closing the gap between central city students and others.

It is clear that some schools and, to a lesser degree, some school districts do much better than others in educating the mostly minority children of our central cities. In Milwaukee, certain schools perform well above the averages for high minority/high poverty schools. That's why President Bush paid a visit in 2002 to Clarke Street Elementary.

Replicating the success of those schools has been a slow and difficult process.

However, as long as some schools succeed, they pose a challenge to all schools.

State Superintendent Burmaster and Howard Fuller, the influential former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent who is a key advocate for school voucher and charter plans, disagree on many things about education. But both said you also can't give schools a pass on the responsibility to educate students - even accounting for forces that affect a child's education outside the classroom.

"Our greatest challenge now is ensuring that all children, especially children of color and economically disadvantaged kids, are having the curriculum and the quality of teachers and seeing the same academic results as their peers," Burmaster said.

Said Fuller: "Anyone who says the things that happen to kids outside of school, you just blow them off, that's ridiculous." But, he added, if even one urban school is succeeding, "then we can't keep saying, 'They can't learn because of the things they bring when they come to school.' "

"Take the eyes of these millions off the stars and fasten them in the soil; and if their young men will dream dreams, let them be dreams of corn bread and molasses."

In a 1906 speech, W.E.B. DuBois, one of the most influential intellectuals in African-American history, said he feared that was one of the goals of those who did not want to see black people become successful.

If they must dream, make sure they are small dreams.

Think of how damaging that is, DuBois was saying.

In 1960, a committee appointed by then-Milwaukee Mayor Frank P. Zeidler to study problems of "the inner core," as it was then called, put it this way:

"Too many Negro children do not picture themselves as mechanics, technicians, artisans or professional people; the result is a void where ambition should lie."

One of the most common observations among teachers at central city schools is that so many of their students just aren't interested in doing well in school and don't really see that success in school is part of the route to a successful future.

As the recently released wave of federal test data for fourth- and eighth-graders showed, one of the things that correlates most strongly with a student doing well in school is how far the parents of that student went in school. The better educated the parents, the better educated the kids.

How to break the cycle of educational failure for the children of people who did not do well in school remains one of the key unresolved issues in efforts to close the gap the Supreme Court addressed in 1954.

"We delude ourselves that we're better than we are."

The words come from Wesley Scott, now 87 and for decades a leader in Milwaukee's African-American community. It's one of his thoughts on why Wisconsin and Milwaukee are at or near the extreme end of so many measures of the gap between blacks and whites.

It's not that things are so much better in many other urban areas when it comes to gauging racial disparities, but it's that we're at the wrong end of so many of those measures. This deeply troubles many community leaders. There are few good answers.

Are we more racist than other places? There's no way to quantify that. There is no question that many white people did not want black people around in the Milwaukee of a generation or more ago, and racism is not dead. But who knows if it is worse here than elsewhere?

Do we not spend enough on social services or helping people? That seems unlikely, given Wisconsin's history, even accounting for tighter spending in recent years.

In fact, one suggestion is that the opposite is true: Wisconsin's generous approach to social services over past decades made the state a preferred destination for low-income people who had poor educational backgrounds and work records. At the same time, there are fewer middle- and upper-income black households in the Milwaukee area than in other metropolitan areas.

The result, this theory goes, is a black community that is poorer than other black communities, and consequently one that has more problems.

Scott said he has not seen much progress overall in the educational success of black people in the 50 years since the Brown decision. And he worried that the attitudes ingrained in him as a child - the importance of education, particularly as "something the white folks can't take away from you" - were not being ingrained in many young people today.

In 1938, DuBois said in a speech that people should "not pause nor think of pausing" until every black child was attending a school that offered good facilities, the best trained teachers, capable principals and programs that required them to learn at least five hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year.

Is that too much to ask?

Perhaps that question is a good way to rephrase what the Supreme Court said in 1954.

There have been many steps since then, both forward and backward.

But the question remains.

— Alan J. Borsuk
Journal Sentinel
Dream of equal schooling is unrealized





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