05.17.18

Reflecting on Brown v. Board of Education 64 Years Later

by Gerard Robinson

A quality education remains a pathway to middle class status in America; however, across the country, there are still an overwhelming number of people without access to schools or postsecondary institutions that will improve socioeconomic opportunities for themselves and their families. This was true on May 17, 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine that anointed Jim Crow public school master in the North and South for more than half a century. Every anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision provides us time to reflect on the state of education and the unfinished business of advancing opportunity.

On May 30, 2017, the Center for Advancing Opportunity (CAO) hosted a symposium for researchers, educators, advocates, and others to examine the present-day significance of the ruling. For example, Virginia Walden Ford, Executive Director of the Arkansas Parent Information Center, Alonzo Smith, Professor at Montgomery College, and Sekou Biddle, VP of Advocacy at the United Negro College Fund, shared their personal relationship to Brown and identified areas of success and challenge. Dr. Greg Forster, a Friedman Fellow at EdChoice, Mashea Ashton, CEO of Digital Pioneers Academy, and myself spoke candidly about the meaning of “school choice” since 1954. Dr. Steve Perry, the Founder of Capital Preparatory Schools, delivered the keynote remarks addressing pressing topics such as politics, unions, and school access.

On February 5-6, 2018, CAO hosted a State of Opportunity in America Summit for professors, educators, entrepreneurs, and advocates to discuss what 6,230 people living in fragile communities in 49 states and the District of Columbia identify as barriers to, and solutions for, educational opportunity (as well as criminal justice reform and economic mobility). Naturally, Brown was part of that discussion.

Here are a few findings:

  • 12 percent of people in these communities have at least a four-year degree compared to 31 percent of the total U.S. population;
  • 38 percent “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement that all children in the area where they live have access to high-quality public schools;
  • 54 percent of residents in Chicago, IL, 51 percent in Birmingham, AL, and 34 percent in Fresno, CA “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement that all children in the area where they live have access to high-quality public schools;
  • 88 percent say a college education is “important” or “very important” to expand opportunity – with 75 percent of Hispanics, 74 percent of Blacks, and 49 percent of Whites saying so – yet, only 19 percent agree that everyone in the U.S. has access to an affordable college education; and
  • Despite these dire statistics, Black and Hispanic residents are somewhat more optimistic than White residents that their future lives will be better than their lives in the present.

At CAO, we understand it is our obligation to complement a larger conversation about opportunity in order to move a community from promise to prosperity. Why? Because the fight to the “top” is an American ritual; but the quest for access to a quality education should not be.

Therefore, through CAO’s support of faculty and students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, where Thurgood Marshall and other NAACP attorneys in the Brown case received an education, and Albany State University’s new Center for Educational Opportunity, we will help to identify innovative ways to make Brown’s goals a reality for more families, children and educators—regardless of race or ethnicity.

For in the end, we are all beneficiaries of Brown.

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