Linda Brown was only 9 years old when her dad, the Rev. Oliver Brown, walked with her to an all-white neighborhood school in Topeka, Kansas. Brown’s request to enroll Linda in this school was denied. It was 1950, and under the so-called “separate but equal” doctrine, black and white Americans were separated in many ways, including transportation, public accommodations, and schools. States sanctioned such segregation, so many Americans accepted it as part of life. Not Rev. Brown and little Linda.
With the help of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and a very competent lawyer, Thurgood Marshall (who later became the first black justice serving on the U.S. Supreme Court), the Brown family filed a lawsuit against the school board. Their case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
At the time there were four other cases about segregation in public schools. So the court consolidated all five under the name of Brown v. Board of Education. Thus, Rev. Brown became the lead plaintiff and Linda the face of this landmark case.
Standing in front of all nine justices, Marshall argued that separate school systems for blacks and whites were inherently unequal, and thus violate the “equal protection clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He declared that “A child born to a black mother in a state like Mississippi… has exactly the same rights as a white baby born to the wealthiest person in the United States. It’s not true, but I challenge anyone to say it is not a goal worth working for.”
We all know what happened. On May 14, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered a unanimous decision by declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional. In his words, “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Although it would be many years before all school systems were desegregated, the Brown v. Board of Education decision was credited with kickstarting the process, not only for schools but also for other public accommodations.
Economic-Driven School Segregation Persists
Unlike some so-called civil rights leaders today, Linda never sought to enrich herself from her fame. She shied away from the spotlight. Instead, she dedicated her life to education. She made a living by teaching in a preschool for low-income youngsters. In her spare time, she helped her sister Cheryl run the nonprofit Brown Foundation, which focuses on education.
More than half a century after Brown v. Board of Education, Linda didn’t think our public school system was problem-free. In one of her speeches, she called attention to economic segregation, a “de facto segregation,” in our school system. She couldn’t be more right.
An analysis about economic segregation released by EdBuild, a nonprofit focused on education funding, shows that the 50 most segregated school districts have childhood poverty rates 40 percentage points different from those of their neighbors. This is five times the national average. The culprit is the overreliance on property taxes to fund local public schools, which helps rich neighborhoods with high property values have better public schools than do poor areas.
Such economic segregation tends to hurt minority students most. A report from the Government Accountability Office shows that from school year 2000-2001 to 2013-2014, the percentage of K-12 public schools that were high-poverty and comprised of mostly black or Hispanic students grew significantly, from 9 percent to 16 percent. Moreover, those 16 percent of schools comprised mainly of students of color represent 61 percent of all high-poverty schools. Most of these schools are also underperforming schools, which fail to provide minority children the quality education they deserve. This helps keep them in lifelong poverty.
Give Poor Kids the Choice Rich Kids Have
The most effective way to address this economic segregation in today’s public school system is through school choice. By using vouchers, state- or privately sponsored scholarships, or allowing a portion of schools’ taxpayer funding to follow each student to schools their parents choose, students from underprivileged backgrounds can break free from failing public schools and access a quality education.
This is not wishful thinking. Public charter school teacher Nicholas Simmons once wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he “worked in the same building as the Wadleigh Secondary School, at which 0 percent of students in grades six through eight met state standards in math or English” (emphasis added). Two floors above Wadleigh in the same building, at the Success Academy West, a New York City charter school where Simmons teaches, 96 percent of the students were proficient in math and 75 percent in reading and writing.
The student profiles of both schools are very similar, according to Simmons: “At both schools, more than 95 percent of students are black or Hispanic. About the only difference is that families at Harlem West won an admissions lottery.” With quality education, these students can unlock their American dreams, looking into their future with hope and confidence.
Linda Brown, the trailblazer of school desegregation, passed away Sunday at the age of 76. Her life is a shining example of how one person with determination and tenacity can have an enormous effect on history. But the fight for education access continues.
No longer are police standing in the schoolroom door denying students a quality education. Now that role is too often played by teachers’ unions, cowardly politicians, and bureaucrats. The future of educational access is choice. Linda Brown’s fight continues.