Tag Archives: Brown v. Board of Ed.

A Poor People’s Campaign for Education Reform? What We Can Learn from LBJ and MLK

On April 11, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson sat in front of a one-room schoolhouse in Stonewall, Texas — the rural setting where he received his formative education — and signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). By his side was his former teacher, an elderly white woman bedecked in pearls and cat-eye glasses, and a group of Mexican-American former students he had taught in the Texas border town of Cotulla. This framing was no accident: the undercurrents of Civil Rights policy were in the air as Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the previous summer. And to further spotlight race equity in the ESEA, the date was selected to fall nearly 100 years to the day that the Civil War concluded.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on April 11, 1965. Photo by Frank Wolfe / LBJ Library

Johnson was staunch about his commitment to education. In a March 1965 conversation with newly inaugurated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Johnson said: “Don’t ever argue with me. I’ll go a hundred million or a billion on health or education….Education and health. I’ll spend the goddamned money.” With ESEA’s role in providing significantly expanded resources (like library books, special education centers, and college scholarships) to vulnerable students, Johnson served as a human bridge between underserved populations: rural students, minorities, and immigrants. Looking at Johnson’s cleverly staged ESEA photo makes me think there are again opportunities for underserved student interests to unite in their demand for access to educational and economic equality. Identifying the intersection of class interests — as LBJ did — might have powerful political ramifications for the U.S. school system. 

A few years after the signing of the ESEA, Martin Luther King, Jr. carried the racial and economic unity torch forward. In 1968 he initiated the Poor People’s Campaign, which sought economic justice for the American poor. The first march of the Campaign included an interracial group of protestors — and would be King’s last. At his famous speech directed at striking Memphis sanitation workers, he urged:

We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves.

But what if the photo opp Johnson arranged in Stonewall or the Poor People’s movement King envisioned stepped off the pages of history? What would a united populist movement for education and economic equality look like? How would it affect the classrooms our children fill each morning and the neighborhoods they return to each afternoon? As schools begin de facto resegregating, how might a united front across all underrepresented classes and underfunded schools provide a more equal education for all? Continue reading

65 Years Too Late: Education in the American South After Brown v. Board

65 years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, over 300 school districts remain under court desegregation orders, 88 percent of which are in the South. Alabama’s constitution still contains racist language about education, and around the U.S., schools and district attendance zones mirror the housing segregation in our communities. Brown v. Board’s anniversary earlier this month reminds us that the legacy of discriminatory in education, housing, and other social policies continues to challenge access and opportunity for a significant proportion of our students.

A new Bellwether analysis released last week illuminates challenges the American South continues to face and points to opportunities to better serve its students. In our slide deck, we examine education in the American South through regional and education trends and historical context. To highlight Southern states’ role in national education reform, we also describe key initiatives and policies that began in the South and expanded to the rest of the country. (Our definition of the South includes 15 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.)

The South is home to many promising solutions to help better serve minority and low-income students. For example, in charter schools in Texas, Florida, and New Orleans, African American and Hispanic students have demonstrated better performance in comparison to district-managed schools. In higher education, 90 of the remaining 102 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are located in the South. HBCUs produce 24 percent of black STEM graduates and confer almost 35 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned by black graduates in astronomy, biology, chemistry, math, and physics. Local investments have contributed to this progress, but national funding and philanthropy don’t always keep up with highest need areas in the South.

With 56 percent of all black students in the U.S. living in the South, as well as substantial portions of the nation’s English language learner and migrant student populations, funders, policymakers, and school leaders must acknowledge the persistence of segregation in the South and the failure to sufficiently support our students. We can’t wait another 65 years.

Read our comprehensive slide deck, “Education in the American South,” here and follow the conversation on Twitter at #EduSouth.

We Can’t Sue Our Way to Equitable Schools

Last week marked 62 years since the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, and our public schools are by and large, as segregated as they were when the policies were banned. After all, the mandate to “outlaw segregation” is not the same thing as “have integrated schools,” and the farther a decision has to travel from courtroom to outcome, the less likely it is to deliver on its objective.  And yet Brown remains a cultural touchstone with deep and consistent resonance for education professionals, civil rights activists, and attorneys.

supreme-court-546279_1280Civil rights litigation is regarded with a reverence that is, perhaps, disproportionate to its reality. It is expensive, time consuming, fractious for communities, and emotionally exhausting. In 1976, leading critical race studies professor Derrick Bell published “Serving Two Masters: Integration Ideals and Client Interests in School Desegregation Litigation,” challenging the mainstream celebration of school desegregation litigation and describing the problem as one of a conflict of interest between lawyers invested in challenging segregation laws and their Black clients who wanted only high-quality schools for their children. Linda Brown, the student about whom the famous case was filed, has talked extensively about feeling exploited by a process that ultimately couldn’t provide integrated schools for her own children.

When we think about the purpose and effect of impact litigation, there are two recent cases that illustrate an important distinction: In a case like Obergefell v. Hodges, a righteous court opinion changed people’s lives overnight. Recently, we heard the same sort of evocative language used by the plaintiffs in Vergara v. Californiawhere the legal victory alone wouldn’t guarantee changes, and any changes wouldn’t be felt for years.  As a former education civil rights attorney myself, I’ve thought a lot about how these types of litigation both unite and divide the civil rights community as well as the part they play in education reform. Continue reading