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A Father's Legacy: Brown's daughters Still Working for Education Equality

Linda Brown Thompson was a 7-year-old schoolgirl in Topeka, Kan., when her father took her by the hand to enroll her in an all-white school four blocks from home to avoid the long bus ride across town to the all-black school.

While her father's attempt was unsuccessful that fall morning in 1950, it led to the family becoming one of the plaintiffs in the historic Brown v. Board of Education case that ruled separate schools for whites and blacks were unconstitutional.

Now the little girl pictured and mentioned in history books is a grandmother. She travels the country with her sister, Cheryl Brown Henderson, discussing the case and the importance of education.

"Little did my father know that when he stepped off the witness stand, he stepped into the history pages," Brown Thompson told a gathering that marked the beginning of Houston Independent School District's Black History Month celebrations.

While the 1954 landmark case brought by the NAACP struck down a two-tier education system, Brown Thompson said some enrollment figures in some districts are based on housing patterns.

"I feel some strides and advances are being lost. Schools are being resegregated," Brown Thompson said.

Her sister, meanwhile, said the greater ideal of the case -- equal access to education -- is being bogged down in politics. When she talks about the state of public schools, politics and finance aren't far behind.

"We can't talk about a level playing field until we renew our efforts to public education. Education remains a political football," said Brown Henderson. "This is an election year. Someone is going to emerge as the education president. Politics determine who, where and how we educate our young people."

Some state and local public school supporters say the system in Texas, which educates about 4.3 million students, is weakened by a lack of funding, overly consumed with standardized testing and plagued with high dropout rates for minority students.

Linda McNeil, co-director of Rice University's Center for Education and a former high school teacher in Nashville, Tenn., during desegregation, said public schools do a good job of educating middle- and upper-middle-class students but struggle with poor students and those who are recent immigrants. She credits the No Child Left Behind Act -- a sweeping school reform package enacted in 2001 -- with diverting money from schools to testing.

"No Child Left Behind takes away from our ability to improve instruction, update our maps, update our curriculum," she said. "We have a very divided school system. We know how to do school; we just don't do it very well for our poor or recent immigrant children."

One of the issues mentioned most often by supporters is funding. Less funding means some schools have to cut art, music and physical education. It may also impact a school's ability to hire veteran teachers. And too often the schools are in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods.

"It has the capability of being the new segregation," said Mercedes Alejandro, president of Parents for Public Schools of Houston. "If we're not funding schools adequately, we're going to create a new lower class of child. Less funds mean schools do without."

Later this month, the Texas Parent-Teacher Association plans to unveil its Finance our Future campaign, in which it wants the state to pay a greater share of the education cost.

"We are reaching a breaking point in our funding system. The pot has to get bigger," said Craig Tounget, the group's executive director. "You've got to provide the quality books and adequate facilities. It's an issue of dollars and cents."

— Salatheia Bryant
A Father's Legacy
Houston Chronicle


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