Brown at Sixty

May 15, 2014
Guest Post

by Rachel M. Kleinman, Assistant Counsel, Education Group, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

*May 17 is the 60th Anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court opinion, Brown v. Board of Education. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium noting the landmark decision and exploring the ongoing inequalities in our society.

This week we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education and its promise and vision of equality. While there is indeed much to celebrate, both in the principles of Brown itself and its now six decade legacy, the fight for equal access to quality education in this country is still being waged on many fronts. At the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund (LDF), we are commemorating this landmark decision by looking back at our history and by doubling down on our current efforts to use law and advocacy to fulfill the promises of Brown.

While Brown marked the beginning of the end of a legally-sanctioned, racially segregated, dual system of education, we have a long way to go to reach a day when all students have equal access to a quality education. Our country’s history of discrimination, along with deeply entrenched residential segregation, has left us with racially-identifiable schools that do not enjoy equality of resources. We still fight to ensure that all children have access to early childhood education, to adequate school facilities, to safe schools with positive climates, to certified teachers and to rigorous and inspiring courses of study. We also fight to keep our black and brown students free from the myriad policies, including overly harsh and damaging discipline practices, which conspire to push them out of schools and into the criminal justice system.

As lawyers, we are acutely aware of how courts can restrict or expand our capacity for change. Certainly Brown demonstrated the transformative possibilities of the law. But courts take away as well. Many of the problems mentioned above we must now fight to address without the benefit of access to federal courts. The Supreme Court’s 2001 decision in Alexander v. Sandoval eradicated one of our key tools for addressing racial discrimination by refusing to recognize a private right of action for policies and practices that have a racially disparate impact. In order to get into court, one must now allege and be able demonstrate intentional discrimination, a bar so high that it effectively blocks advocates from bringing most cases that seek racial justice in education. We have thus been forced to pursue other means of advocacy to curb racial disparities in education—even though recent data clearly demonstrates that racial disparities are prevalent and that structural inequality plagues so many of our institutions.    

For example, LDF filed a Title VI complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) alleging that the Bryan Independent School District (“Bryan ISD”), a mid-sized school district in central Texas, was improperly using “School Resource Officers” (“SROs”) as the “disciplinary arm” of schools, needlessly criminalizing students for minor misbehavior by issuing “Class C” criminal misdemeanor tickets to students as a standard mode of discipline. The ticketing practice resulted in significant racial disparities. While African-American students comprise less than 25 percent of the students in Bryan public schools, they received more than half of all tickets issued—and were four times more likely to receive tickets for the minor offenses of “Disruption of Class” or “Disorderly Conduct-Language” compared to other students.

We also filed a Title VI complaint with OCR alleging that the use of a single multiple choice test to admit students to New York City’s most prestigious public schools has an unjustifiable racially disparate impact. As a result of this outdated policy, year after year, thousands of academically talented African-American and Latino students who take the test are denied admission to these schools at rates far higher than those for other racial groups.

Both of these administrative complaints are currently under investigation by the DOE. It is our firm hope and belief that complaints like these, and the continued advocacy in which LDF and other civil rights defenders engage, will bring us one step closer to fulfilling the promise of Brown – ensuring equal educational opportunities for all students regardless of race.