On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision, ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in public educational facilities was unConstitutional. The case was brought on behalf of Linda Brown, a young black girl from Topeka, Kansas, who had been denied admission to her local elementary school on the basis of her skin color.
At the time, public facilities were segregated based on the justification that a 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” accommodations in railroad cars conformed to the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. But in Brown’s case, the all-white school she wanted to attend was closer to her home and was far superior to the all-black school that other children of her skin color and from her neighborhood were required to attend.
The Warren Court ruled that not only was the doctrine of “separate but equal” unConstitutional in Brown’s case, it was unConstitutional in all cases because it stamped an inherent badge of inferiority on black students. A year later the Supreme Court published guidelines requiring public school systems to integrate “with all deliberate speed.”
Soon, black and white students alike were being bused miles out of their neighborhoods and across town in order to achieve the forced integration of schools. Many local schools were closed — most often schools that served all-black students, because of their inferior conditions — and teachers and administrators — again, mostly blacks — lost their jobs. Some communities saw riots and fistfights over the busing. Those fights often broke down over racial lines.
Fifty-nine years later, what has Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka wrought? For the most part, whites have fled the inner cities, and inner city schools continue to have a minority-predominant student body and are inferior to schools in the suburbs that have a predominantly white student body. That’s even though more and more money is spent on “education” and more and more Federal intervention occurs each year.
Rather than ruling on the law in the Brown decision, the Supreme Court deferred to social engineers who proclaimed that children in a multiracial environment would learn better than children in a single-race environment. In an essay titled “The Education of Minority Children,” Thomas Sowell showed that that is not so. He highlights many all-black schools that have turned out outstanding students. One of them was Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. But the Brown ruling changed all that.
Now, decades later, we still do not have racial integration in many of the urban schools around the country– and we also do not have Dunbar High School. Such are the ways of politics, where the crusade of the hour often blocks out everything else, at least until another crusade comes along and takes over the same monopoly of our mind.
Ironically, black high schools in Washington today have many of the so-called “prerequisites” for good education that never existed in the heyday of Dunbar High School– and yet the educational results are abysmal. “Adequate funding” is always included among these “prerequisites” and today the per pupil expenditure in the District of Columbia is among the highest in the nation. During its heyday, Dunbar was starved for funds and its average class size was in the 40s. Its lunchroom was so small that many of its students had to eat out on the streets. Its blackboards were cracked and it was 1950 before the school had a public address system. Yet, at that point, it had 80 years of achievement behind it– and only 5 more in front of it.
As a failing ghetto school today, Dunbar has a finer physical plant than it ever had when it was an academic success. Politics is also part of this picture. Immediate, tangible symbols are what matter within the limited time horizon of elected politicians. Throwing money at public schools produces such symbolic results, even if it cannot produce quality education.
We now have 59 years of experience showing that Federal intervention, forced desegregation and gobs of money don’t lead to a good education. As Fran Thomas, one black activist in Louisville, Ky., told The Atlantic of her decision to fight the district’s desegregation system: “I can see why everybody was excited when the law came down that we were integrated. They thought this was utopia, and that everything was going to be all right. We got a new school. We got a swimming pool and trees. Everybody was happy and ecstatic. But they didn’t know what the integration really meant–the harshness.” Thomas says she stopped believing in the promises of desegregation when she saw “the destroying of schools under the name of education.”
History shows a good education requires committed students, a strong faculty, a sound curriculum and a local school board dedicated to providing the best opportunities for its students to succeed — not central planners in ivory towers.