Summary 2014 Kurz Panel: Are we More Equal? 60 years after Brown v Board

As part of my duties as Kurz Chair in Constitutional Law and Civil Liberties, I am charged with producing public programing relating to civil liberties and civil rights.  In commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court desegregation decision, Brown v Board of Education, I brought together three experts in education policy and history for the 2014 Kurz Panel.  The panel discussion took place at Brooklyn College on April 7, 2014 and was attended by about 50 faculty members and students of the college.  I had asked the panelists to assess how far we as a nation had come since Brown v Board and how much further we need to go.

David Bloomfield of Brooklyn College started off the discussion.  Having served as a former General Counsel to the New York City Board of Education and adviser to Manhattan borough president, Bloomfield is an expert in educational policy and law generally, but also on the situation in NY in particular. He noted that while the Presidential order by President Carter was issued many decades ago, we are no closer to eliminating school desegregation.  Moreover, there are persistent problems beyond just physical and racial segregation of schools.  There is still an achievement gap between white and minority students.  He reported some of the findings of a recent UCLA study issued by Gary Orfield, the leading school segregation researcher, that noted NYC is home to the nation's most racially segregated school districts. Among some of the negative effects of this racial segregation:  schools that contain predominantly black and Latino students have less experienced teachers, less resources, and students of these groups face more suspensions out of proportion of their numbers in the school population.

Bloomfield especially hammered home the point that in NYC, "geography is destiny" for your education opportunities in the sense that where you live dictates the quality of your schools if you cannot afford to attend private schools.  Much of the effect of racial segregation in NYC schools results from income inequality, housing patterns, and its overlap with race.  He notes the many school districts that are predominantly minority could not afford to run a gifted and talented programs because allegedly, too few students qualified for them.  On the flip side, the number of black and Latino students admitted to NYC's specialized high schools was abysmal.  He quoted the statistic that Stuyvesant High School admitted all of 7 African American students this year.

Chris Bonastia, a Sociologist from CUNY Lehman and the Grad Center, then presented some historical context for the struggle for desegregation.  Bonastia has written a book about Prince Edward County in Virginia which closed down its public school system from 1959-1963 in order to halt the integration demanded by Brown and repeated federal court orders.  Prince Edward County was in fact one of the counties included in the second Brown compliance case.  Bonastia noted the problems with court decrees that lacked specific enforcement and compliance mechanisms.  There was quite a bit of resistance not just from Prince Edward County, but among many counties in both the North and South, due to the lack of clarity about what actually constituted compliance with the Brown decision.  Nevertheless, compared to other counties and states, what made Prince Edward County stand out was the duration and concertedness of the resistance to integration.

Bonastia recounted what happened in Prince Edward County after the closure of the public school system in 1959.  Essentially private schools popped up to coincide with the closing of the public schools and most of the white students went to those private schools.  Meanwhile, 3/4 of the black students from that county missed 5 years of education.  In 1964, when the federal courts ordered the public schools to reopen, the county simply starved them for funding.  Bonastia further noted that the problem with segregated schools was mainly a resource issue; minority schools were simply not funded with comparable resources to white schools.

Karolyn Tyson, a Sociologist from UNC Chapel Hill gave the last presentation.  Tyson has authored a book calling attention not to the racial segregation across schools, but within schools.  She started by saying there is no question we as a nation have come a long way since Brown, but persistent racial inequality within schools continues to undermine the many gains made since Brown.  Her research is about the problems of racial inequality that persist within integrated schools within the tracking system.  White students dominate AP and Honors track classes while black and Latino students dominate lower track classes.  The problem with this tracking system that correlates with race is that lower track classes regularly suffer more disruptive classrooms, are less challenging, have fewer experienced teachers, and fewer resources than higher track classes.

She also conducted ethnographic research among high performing black high school students to see how they were making sense of the racial segregation within schools.  The results are devastating.  When these black students see in all their Honors and AP classes that they are among less than 3 black students in those classes, they start drawing negative conclusions.  One student said, "It [the pattern] looks like black people aren't that smart and black people can't cut it."  Or from another student, "Black people just don't take Honors/AP classes".  Tyson said these tortured comments result from the constant messages we all are sent that your educational quality and result are a result of merit alone, not the structural racism that she had documented.

The three presentations together painted a sobering picture of persistent racial segregation patterns 60 years after Brown.  Although de jure segregation has been eliminated, the effects of property values, income patterns, and their correlation with race conspire to ensure that de facto segregation persists in areas like NYC.  In addition, one cannot look just for segregation across schools when there are racial disparities within integrated schools.  Finally, as Bonastia cautioned, given the shameful legacy of how private schools were used in Prince Edward County to avoid integration, one must be vigilant against siren song of privatization of schools as the magic bullet that will solve problems.  Some charter schools, as Bloomfield noted, are contributing to the racial segregation problem in NYC.

At the conclusion of the presentations, the panelists took questions for about 20 minutes.  The audiences was very engaged and asked a variety of questions including, "Who is to be held responsible for the mess that is NYC public school?" and "Is culture a factor in different student groups' academic success.?" Some of my students who attended the panel told me the information they learned was "eye opening".