Urban Wire Separate but equal 50 years after the March on Washington
Reed Jordan
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A principal goal of the civil rights movement was desegregation of public schools. Yet 50 years later, high-profile education initiatives like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the federally sponsored Promise Neighborhoods program are aiming to ensure that separate is equal rather than pushing for integration. Why?

The short answer is that desegregation failed. It didn’t bring about integrated schools and education equality, so now we need alternative ways to improve schooling for poor children and children of color.

The failure of desegregation

The civil rights movement sought to achieve equal education opportunities for children of color by attacking the legal doctrine of segregation in public schools. Not only were white and black students enrolled in separate schools, the black schools were underfunded, staffed by poorly trained teachers, and often located in the most distressed areas of the city. Civil rights activists viewed desegregation as a remedy to the myriad negative effects of the isolation, stigmatization, and resource inferiority of black-only schools.

In 1954, the movement achieved its most significant legal victory in Brown v. Board of Education, when the Supreme Court ruled that the doctrine of “separate but equal” education for black and white students was unconstitutional. Initially, the decision provided a bright outlook for education equality in America; indeed, 10 years after Brown, schools nationwide became increasingly desegregated, a trend that continued into the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

But beginning in the mid-70s, a series of Supreme Court cases limiting the scope and enforcement of desegregation remedies gutted Brown, rendering it meaningless and unenforceable in most metropolitan areas. Coupled with white flight to the suburbs and subsequent white backlash to desegregation plans linking suburbs to cities, large-scale desegregation efforts became a politically untenable solution abandoned by civil rights and education activists. Almost 60 years after the Brown decision, The Civil Rights Project at UCLA reports that American schools today are at least as segregated as they were in the late ‘60s.

Making separate schools equal

Since segregation is the reality of American schools, education and civil rights activists are now searching for other ways to improve education equality. Early efforts focused on boosting funding for poor urban schools mostly attended by students of color. More recently, the school reform movement and place-based initiatives have sought to close the racial achievement gap.

What these efforts have in common are attempts to make concentrated poor and minority public schools comparable to their well-funded and often largely white counterparts—in other words, to make separate schools equal and prove wrong Brown’s famous decree that a segregated education is inherently unequal. President Obama’s administration has offered incentive programs to states to institute teacher testing, incentives to improve teacher quality, and major federal grants for place-based initiatives such as Promise Neighborhoods.

Modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, Promise Neighborhoods is intended to turn neighborhoods of concentrated poverty into neighborhoods of opportunity with high-performing schools and quality social and community supports.

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded 12 five-year Promise Neighborhood grants to organizations working in the most distressed communities in the United States. These organizations will provide children a continuum of school-readiness programs, academic services, and family and community supports from early childhood through college. These “cradle-to-career services” are designed to help children succeed in spite of the structural barriers they face in their high-poverty, high-need neighborhoods.

The Urban Institute is working with Promise Neighborhood grantees to collect 15 key measures used to gauge the initiative’s success in improving educational outcomes for children. The Promise Neighborhood initiative aims to bring about the academic results sought in the civil rights movement: equal educational opportunities for children, regardless of their race or income.

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Research Areas Children and youth
Tags Racial and ethnic disparities K-12 education Racial segregation Civil rights laws and regulations Head Start and elementary education Secondary education Inequality and mobility Racial equity in education
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center