May 17 will be the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down “separate but equal” public education, notes Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic. Another milestone will be reached in June: The end of the last school year in which a majority of 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 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.
Yet many complain the decision didn’t really end school segregation, writes Brownstein. Inequality remains a problem.
Segregation Now looks at the resegregation of Tuscaloosa, Alabama schools after a court order was lifted.
The citywide integrated high school is gone, replaced by three smaller schools. Central retains the name of the old powerhouse, but nothing more. A struggling school serving the city’s poorest part of town, it is 99 percent black. . . . Predominantly white neighborhoods adjacent to Central have been gerrymandered into the attendance zones of other, whiter schools.
No all-white schools exist anymore—the city’s white students generally attend schools with significant numbers of black students. . . . (But) nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.
When all the city’s public students attended Central, the school racked up academic and athletic honors, writes Nikole Hannah-Jones for ProPublica. The dropout rate was less than half the state’s average.
The school was hardly perfect. Black students were disproportionately funneled into vocational classes, and white students into honors classes. . . . the white flight that had begun when the courts first ordered the district to desegregate continued, slowly, after the formation of the mega-school. But despite these challenges, large numbers of black students studied the same robust curriculum as white students, and students of both races mixed peacefully and thrived.
Many whites moved to county schools which are predominantly white or to private schools: only 22 percent of Tuscaloosa’s public students are white. Surveys showed whites would leave if a school’s black enrollment hit 70 percent. So school officials — with some black support — concentrated a third of black students in all-black schools in hopes of keeping other schools integrated.
Hannah-Jones makes the case that Central offers less to its top students than the city’s integrated high schools. She focuses on an honor student — also a star athlete and student body president — whose low ACT scores put any selective college out of reach.
D’Leisha’s grandfather went through segregated schools, served in the Air Force, then worked a blue-collar job. Her mother went to Central High at the peak of integration, went to college, dropped out to have a baby but returned to earn a degree from the University of Alabama. She worked as a teacher’s aide, but now earns more on an auto factory assembly line. She’s supporting four children as a single parent.