September 6, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 4
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No turning back

Dr. John H. Jackson

The start of this school year marks the 50th anniversary of the efforts of NAACP organizer Daisy Bates and nine teenagers that would become known as “the Little Rock Nine” to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Their commitment to desegregation and breaking down the barriers to a quality public education was courageous and unceasing. Their determination eventually forced President Dwight D. Eisenhower to federalize the Arkansas National Guard to usher the nine students past brick-toting parents into Central High.

Although the setting was Little Rock, the events sent a clear message across the nation: the federal government would be held accountable for upholding the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1954 decision in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, in which Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Sadly, 50 years later, far too many children of color still attend public schools that are “separate and unequal.”

Data indicate that our nation’s schools are as racially segregated today as they were in the late 1960s. Consequently, on average, African American and Latino students are more likely to attend schools that are under-resourced and academically failing under No Child Left Behind, and to be taught in classrooms staffed by less experienced teachers. In the most highly segregated urban districts, more than 50 percent of students drop out before graduation. Recent statistics show that in Boston, 28 percent of Hispanic ninth-graders never made it to graduation, compared with 23 percent of black students and 21 percent of white students.

In spite of all this, on June 28, 2007, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision shockingly struck down voluntary integration plans in both Seattle and Louisville, Ky. While the decision represents a serious shift from past constitutional precedence and federal actions on the issue, the extreme anti-Brown views of Justices John G. Roberts Jr., Samuel A. Alito Jr., Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were kept in check by the view of swing voter, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

Contrary to some interpretations, the Court’s ruling should not mark the end of state and local efforts to voluntarily integrate and diversify schools. The decision leaves open the possibility that other voluntary assignment plans using “race as a factor” and other methods to combat racial isolation could pass constitutional muster.

In fact, five of the Court’s nine justices — Justices Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, Stephen G. Breyer and David Souter — explicitly upheld the principle that diversity is a compelling interest in education and that race-conscious remedies may be used to combat the pernicious problem of de facto segregation.

While the legal impact of this decision is limited, it shows that a growing contingent, especially in the Supreme Court, is ready to retreat when confronted by challenges to diversify local education systems. Thus, civil rights advocates and diversity proponents must help school districts resist scrapping effective and legally sound race-conscious assignment plans or applying the “mistaken” interpretation in any other way.

For example, Boston’s Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) program — designed to address issues related to desegregation and break up the public education inequities by transporting African American, Latino and Asian students to better-resourced, predominately white school districts — should be not only continued, but augmented.

Educators, business partners, parents, students and community advocates must work together to devise new, more aggressive race-conscious policies to combat growing racial isolation, promote diversity and end the profound racial inequity in public education. Community housing plans are becoming increasingly important as essential methods to address school segregation, and advocacy organizations should intensify their involvement in the development and critical analysis of local housing and zoning plans to ensure racial diversity.

With racially segregated and unequal schools in each state across the nation, race-conscious remedies are urgently needed to prevent the further denial of educational opportunities. Therefore, just as Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine stood tall, marched forward and met the challenges of their day, education advocates and all like-minded individuals must stand tall and continue to march past the efforts of individuals today, who have replaced their rocks with pens and who seek to once again lock the doors of opportunity.

Brown, Little Rock and dedicated individuals changed the trajectory of our nation from that course 50 years ago and, quite frankly, as the saying goes, “We’ve come too far to turn back now.”

Dr. John H. Jackson is the president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education.

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