Living Up to the Promise of Brown v. Board of Education

By Marc Morial

President $ CEO, National Urban League

“Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments … it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” – U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, Brown B. Board of Education, May 17, 1954.

As we mark the 61st anniversary of the landmark anti-segregation case, “separate and unequal” remains a pervasive reality in America’s classrooms. Public school students of color are even less likely now than they were shortly after Brown to share classrooms with white students. There is separate and unequal distribution of resources and – perhaps most damaging of all – of expectations.

Progress has been made. Graduation rates are at an all-time high, and achievement gaps are narrowing. But America has not yet lived up to the promise of Brown. The court’s ruling was to be, as Martin Luther King, Jr., called it, “a great beacon light of hope to millions of colored people throughout the world who had had a dim vision of the promised land of freedom and justice.”

If we are to fulfill that promise, we need a federal education policy that holds school districts to high, consistent standards, and requires equitable, adequate levels of funding. The original intent of the Elementary and Secondary Educational Act – enacted almost a decade after Brown ­- was to level the playing field for disadvantaged students by offering grants to districts serving low-income students, federal grants for text and library books, creation of special education centers, and scholarships for low-income college students.

We must stay true to the spirit of this law and provide adequate resources to help students and schools rise to challenges of the 21st century. A reauthorization of ESEA must build upon, not retreat from, equity, accountability, and federal oversight for the nation’s children.