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Stanford event explores the unfinished legacy of Brown v. Board of Education

Stanford Law School professor Rick Banks (far right) moderates a panel on legal strategies to promote school integration and educational equity with panelists Kimberly Jenkins Robinson, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law (middle right); Robert Kim, executive director of the Education Law Center (middle left); and Myron Orfield, professor of civil rights and liberties law at the University of Minnesota. (Photo: Christine Baker)

Stanford event explores the unfinished legacy of Brown v. Board of Education

On the 70th anniversary of the landmark court decision, the conference delved into ways to support integration in U.S. public schools.

It’s been 70 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” But school segregation has increased steadily over the past three decades.

A May 6 conference at Stanford explored the legacy of the historic court ruling, bringing together scholars, educators, policymakers, and legal experts to chart a path forward.

“We held this conference to take stock of where we are now, 70 years after the historic Brown v. Board decision, in terms of school segregation and equality of educational opportunity in the United States,” said Sean Reardon, the Professor of Poverty and Inequality at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) and faculty director of the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University

“We want to honor the progress that we've made, but also assess and interrogate the challenges that the promise of Brown still faces and the work we still have to do.” said Ann Owens, a professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Southern California, in her opening remarks.

The event, organized and led by Reardon and Owens, was co-sponsored by the GSE, the Educational Opportunity Project, the Stanford Institute for Advancing Just Societies, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Stanford Law School, and the Stanford Center for Racial Justice.

What schools look like 70 years after Brown

The conference featured three panels on the effectiveness of school desegregation and what courts, school districts, and states can do to support it, bookended by keynotes looking at the current state of segregation in U.S. public schools and the road ahead.

In the opening session, Reardon and Owens presented new research findings on racial and economic segregation among schools, which has grown steadily in large school districts over the past 30 years. Researchers on the joint Stanford and USC project found that segregation between white and Black students has increased by 64 percent since 1988 in the 100 largest districts, and segregation by economic status increased 52 percent between 1991 and 2019.

“While we would say that we're not back to pre-Brown levels, the rise of school segregation in large districts that serve students of color is still troubling,” Owens said. 

“The best current research on the consequences of segregation demonstrates unequivocally that segregation has significant negative long-term consequences for black and Hispanic students,” said Reardon, who is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. “And our new research shows that segregation has been increasing in the last 30 years in large school districts as a direct result of educational policies that have abandoned the goal of integrated schooling.” 

Owens and Reardon’s research found that the dissolution of court orders focused on integration and the prevalence of policies favoring school choice over integration have played the largest roles in increasing racial and economic segregation in U.S. schools in recent decades.

“Those two things together entirely explain all of the growth in school segregation since 2000,” he said. “If we don’t do more to create racially and economically integrated schools, we will be perpetuating a system of unequal educational opportunity.” 

During the conference, Reardon and Owens also announced the launch of the Segregation Explorer, an interactive website from the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University that provides searchable data on racial and economic school segregation in U.S. states, counties, metropolitan areas, and school districts from 1991 to 2022.

Why integration is important

During each of the panels, researchers and faculty from Stanford and other universities discussed the importance of integrated schools and strategies to increase integration using different systemic and organizational levers.

“Integration is not about just the assignment of children to schools, but is fundamentally about school resources – it’s about funding teacher quality, access to multicultural curriculum, and access to college preparatory curriculum,” said Rucker Johnson, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, in a panel moderated by GSE assistant professor Michael Hines that discussed evidence on the effects of historical and contemporary school integration efforts. “These are the pieces that get undermined with segregated schools.”

Johnson shared data on the effects of desegregation efforts showing improved academic and life outcomes for students who had early and continued exposure to well-resourced schools, including increased wages and a significant reduction in the annual incidence of poverty in adulthood.

“Moving from desegregation to integration means moving from access to inclusion,” he said. “It means moving from exposure to understanding, and those things don't happen overnight.”

Reasons for hope

In the closing keynote Prudence Carter, a professor of sociology at Brown University and former Jacks Family Professor of Education at the GSE, and Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, discussed the need for perseverance, collaboration, and hope to reverse patterns of segregation in U.S. public schools.

“As we know, we as a nation have infrequently and inconsistently achieved the Brown promise to make education available to all on equal terms, beginning immediately following the Supreme Court's decision and persistently thereafter,” Lhamon said.

“We have lived a long history of unequal schooling, even since Brown, that persists now, punctuated periodically with beacons of hope and confirmation that inequality is not in fact inevitable,” she said.

Lhamon shared a commitment on the federal level to champion nondiscriminatory education, describing investigations and enforcement actions that her office has carried out over the years since it was established to uphold civil rights legislation.

“Thomas Jefferson is famous for having said that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” she said. “And we know – and our history has confirmed again and again – that the struggle to offer equal schooling on a nondiscriminatory basis requires just that vigilance.” 

Faculty mentioned in this article: sean reardon, Ralph Banks

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