Brown v. Board Leaves Schools Unequal

Published July 1, 2003

The Cato Institute of Washington, DC, in cooperation with the Center for New Black Leadership, recently brought together a heavy-hitting group of education reformers and researchers to discuss “Educational Freedom and Urban America: Brown v. Board after Half a Century.”

Almost five decades after the Brown decision, public education in America remains unequivocally unequal in outcomes, with minority children bearing the brunt of the disparity. While 24 percent of white students drop out of public high schools, the figures are almost twice as high for black (45 percent) and Hispanic students (47 percent).

While one in three white fourth-graders achieve at least at the proficient level on the math portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only one in 20 black students and one in 10 Hispanic students do so.

On May 15, a full auditorium heard from two of the school choice movement’s most powerful speakers: Howard Fuller, founder and chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and the Reverend Floyd Flake, senior pastor of the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York and recently appointed president of Wilberforce University in Ohio.

The conference also presented three panels of speakers who analyzed stubborn problems plaguing urban education–particularly with regard to black and Hispanic students–and offered solutions ranging from alternative teacher certification programs to school vouchers to charter schools that specifically prepare students for future civic engagement.

Cato education policy analyst Casey Lartigue Jr., who organized the day-long conference, said he worries the importance of the 1954 decision–and the struggles that led to it–will be lost to the next generation, noting it is often overlooked even by today’s leaders. He believes “no case in the last half-century has been more important than Brown,” but “in some ways, its legacy has not been fulfilled.”

Brown v. Board of Education struck down forced segregation of public schools, Lartigue said, but it clearly did not ensure equal access to quality education for students of all races and classes.

Social Justice

Fuller set the day’s tone with his keynote address, sharply criticizing the continuing defense of the American education system over the needs of parents and their children, especially African-American children. Fuller described the fight to ensure that all parents can choose their children’s schools as one “about social justice and equity” and as an inherently controversial battle because it reflects a “transfer of power.”

To loud applause, Fuller warned that those fighting for the right of every child to receive a high-quality education will neither be intimidated nor deterred, and reminded the audience of the biblical admonishment that “the battle goes not to the swift, but to those who can endure it to the end.”

Former U.S. Congressman Flake, whose church operates a 500-student school in Queens, New York, explained that a multitude of public policies prevent minority and low-income children from achieving at the level of their peers. He noted “one of the greatest challenges we face is the need to diminish special education,” which, he says, “has become the dumping bin for kids.”

Currently serving on President George W. Bush’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, Flake emphasized that special education laws are too often being used to deem difficult students “learning disabled,” setting many of them on a path that leads to eventual incarceration.

Achievement Gap Widening

Panelists reflected a range of vantage points as they shared evidence that urban education systems are failing students, especially black and Hispanic students. Paul Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, showed that at a national level, the “achievement gap” is again widening. He also shared research demonstrating that school choice programs can begin to close that gap.

Providing a welcome contrast to the focus on problems, Irasema Salcido offered one example of a school that is successfully serving black and Hispanic students in DC: the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy, which she opened in 1998 in a basement at a local mall.

According to Salcido, her school exposes the limitations of the traditional, inflexible school structure. The Cesar Chavez School not only sets high academic standards and expects college enrollment for every student, but it provides students with expertise to become more engaged citizens in improving their communities.

“The Real Side” of School Failure

Lartigue buttressed the need for more schools like Salcido’s with a summary of the research from his report, “The Need for Educational Freedom in the Nation’s Capital,” which caused a stir when it was presented at a Cato Forum in the District of Columbia last fall. (See “DC Schools Chief Blast Scholarship Program,” School Reform News, February 2003.)

But it was left to DC parent Barbara Mickens to share “the real side, not the intellectual side” of the city’s failing urban education system.

“What future can a child have if he hasn’t been properly educated?” she asked.

Additional presenters at the conference included David Bositis, senior policy analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies; Frederick Hess, resident scholar, the American Enterprise Institute; Lawrence Patrick III, president and CEO, the Black Alliance for Educational Options; and C. Emily Feistritzer, president, the National Center for Education Information.

A collection of papers prepared for the conference will be published by the Cato Institute in May 2004. Full audio and video recordings of the conference are available now at

Kelly Amis Stewart is an education consultant and coauthor of Making it Count: A Guide to High-Impact Education Philanthropy with Chester E. Finn, Jr. Her email address is [email protected].