May 17 will mark the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision which struck down the doctrine of “separate but equal” in public schools.
Prior to the Brown decision, public schools in several states separated their children according to skin color: White skinned children went to one school and dark skinned children to another. While the practice was actually required by law in most Southern states (a practice known as de jure, or “by law” segregation), several other states across the country either allowed the practice as optional, or state law was silent on the issue.
Colorado stood with 15 other states in expressly forbidding the practice of de jure segregation.
The Supreme Court’s decision hinged on the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and its so-called “Equal Protection Clause,” which requires that all states extend “equal protection of the laws” to all people. In the case of education, the court held that the “doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
While the court’s decision eliminated the practice of de jure segregation because of the inherently unequal treatment of separating students based on race, the justices also carefully considered the research available at that time, which clearly indicated that segregation had a decidedly negative impact on students of color.
In terms of student achievement, the court’s decision has paid off. National testing data confirms that African-American and Hispanic students now score closer than ever to white students. Despite some fears that the achievement of white students would be compromised, today we also see that scores for white students have never been higher. Together, all groups of students are approaching a 90 percent high school graduation rate, a key performance benchmark of a high performing education system.
Today, the idea of segregating students by skin color is offensive and deeply immoral to most people. Yet, it can be argued that de facto segregation by race and economic condition in our schools remains a chronic problem for our nation. A recent story in The Atlantic noted, “three-fourths of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics attend schools where a majority of the students qualify as low-income.”
Here in Eagle County, our own de facto segregation is as troubling as it is anywhere in the country. School age students in our county are roughly 50 percent Hispanic and 50 percent white, yet the non-charter Eagle County public schools are the only educational institutions even close to approximating that demographic as reality.
If we are honest with ourselves, then we must acknowledge that we have schools literally within sight of each other that are nearly completely segregated by race and economic condition.
Some might charge that there is an undercurrent of racism that has led us to this place. While this may indeed be some part of the problem, the more likely culprits are issues of neighborhood demographics, school boundary lines and the lack of transportation or food services for disadvantaged students.
In any case, as a community shouldn’t we be concerned about the implications of our de facto segregated community?
While significant for marking the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision, this year (2014) is also significant in that it marks the first time in history that the numbers of minority students enrolled in schools outnumber white students.
Further, federal statistics indicate that minorities are already the majority in 310 of the top 500 largest school districts. Hispanic students began outnumbering white students in Eagle County in 2009.
Looking further ahead, the U.S. Census estimates that in 2043 minorities will be the majority in the United States.
These changes mean that the moral purpose behind public education of providing a high quality and equitable education for every student becomes all the more important. For our nation to continue to prosper, we cannot falter in the goal of educating every student with the skills they need for college and careers, regardless of their skin color or economic condition. We also cannot fail in preparation of our students for a much more ethnically diverse future.
The writing is on the wall and the demographics are marching forward. Our country is becoming more diverse. There is no choice or decision to reach on this point; it is happening right before us.
We do have a choice on whether or not we wish our students learn in schools that are inclusive, tolerant and free of racial and economic segregation.
For the sake of our children’s future, let us have the courage to make the right choice.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.