Seventy years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that separating children in public schools based on race is unconstitutional. While the court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education marked a prominent shift toward equality, we have yet to see the promise of Brown fully realized. If we hope to produce an active and diverse citizenry committed to advancing democratic principles, our students must be able to learn with and from peers of different races, ethnicities, languages, faiths, and economic status.



Despite the sit-ins, marches, and court rulings of the civil rights movement, today, many schools remain segregated by race and socioeconomic status, affecting inequities in funding and resources. Amid declining white student enrollment in K-12 public schools (45 percent) and declining National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores in reading and math overall—with score gaps between both white and Black and white and Latino students—persistent segregated learning environments are cause for concern.



America’s progress since Brown



A 2022 Government Accountability Office report found nearly 38 percent of all K-12 public school students attended a predominantly same-race school in 2020-21, with about half of white students attending schools with 75 percent or more white student populations. The report also found that about a third of all Hispanic and nearly a quarter of all Black students attended schools made up of students predominantly of the same race. As a result, Black students have little exposure to white students, and vice versa. For example, in Michigan, where 67 percent of students enrolled in the public school system are white, Black students attend schools with just 25.2 percent white student enrollment.



This trend remains true for many other states. Although school integration has been achieved legally, Black and brown students across the United States continue to experience the brunt of harmful, regressive tactics that diminish their identities and erase their histories from school curriculum. For example, Virginia recently approved new standards for elementary-level history lessons following a contentious battle that included proposals to refer to Native Americans as “immigrants” and remove all references of Juneteenth and Martin Luther King Jr. Similarly, Florida banned an Advance Placement African American studies course offered by the College Board and passed H.B. 7, dubbed the “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees” (WOKE) Act, which targets critical race theory.



Nearly 38 percent of all K-12 public school students attended a predominantly same-race school in 2020-21.



School boundaries and state zoning practices since Brown have preserved and, in some cases, created hypersegregated schools. According to a 2019 report from the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, 71 percent of U.S. students attend their assigned public school. School zones are designated so students attend the public school closest to their home, unless their family opts for another choice, such as a magnet school, charter school, or use of vouchers at a nonpublic school. Zoning informs where a student attends school and, consequently, the quality of their education. The 2019 report also suggests that the value of a family’s home positively correlates with their assigned school’s overall quality, including teacher quality, academic quality, and even the health and safety of students. In other words, students in wealthier communities with higher home values enjoy higher-quality education.



Following Brown, forced busing was implemented by court order in 1971 as a strategic attempt to transport Black students from their communities to more affluent, whiter neighborhoods to receive a quality education—although some busing was already taking place in the North prior to Brown. In most cases, these efforts proved unsuccessful. Later, in 1974, a U.S. district court judge found the city of Boston had intentionally and unconstitutionally segregated its schools in Morgan v. Hennigan. By way of remedy, the city implemented two-way busing for Black students to attend predominantly white schools. Despite this court-ordered busing, research found students who were bused to schools outside their communities did not reap greater academic achievement after accounting for individual academic motivation and family resources. Not only did busing accelerate “white flight,” but it imposed a psychological and physical toll on Black students who had to travel longer distances to school and sometimes miss classroom instruction.



Solutions to achieve integrated and equitable learning environments



While we may not have realized the promise of Brown, the good news is that Brown still holds promise—but only if we are committed to realizing it. School integration can be achieved through cross-sector collaboration to address the complexities of housing, transportation, and poverty. Schools and districts must work with housing and workforce agencies and policymakers to identify and implement solutions that seek to make schools and communities more racially and economically diverse. National coalitions like the Bridges Collaborative have implemented this approach with select states to integrate schools by partnering with districts, policymakers, charter schools, and housing organizations. Such efforts must be studied and scaled.



Achieving school integration will also require investments from federal and local agencies. With the exception of the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP), there are no federal programs to support voluntary local state efforts to desegregate schools. Frequent and improved data collection and dissemination are also needed to inform federal investments. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice have a duty to protect the civil rights of students. These agencies can continue to play an important role in ensuring that parents, stakeholders, and the public have accurate data relevant to school segregation patterns, noncompliance, and corrective actions to desegregate. Most importantly, the federal government can exercise authority to withhold federal funding when states and districts fail to integrate and create equitable learning environments where all children can thrive.



School integration can be achieved through cross-sector collaboration to address the complexities of housing, transportation, and poverty.



At the local level, education diversity task forces should pursue a study to uncover the economic and technical feasibility of integrating local schools and classrooms. States should also identify and change existing policies and practices that contribute to segregated learning environments, including tracking and ability grouping practices, school feeder pattern policies, and school boundary policies.



The UCLA Civil Rights Project posits that charter school enrollment patterns demonstrate “high levels of minority segregation,” serving a higher percentage of Black and Latino students than traditional public schools. Charter school boards and authorizers should require charters to develop and implement plans to ensure that their schools reflect racial and economic diversity that does not isolate any specific group of students.



We must ensure that integrated environments have the equal resources that the Brown decision promised: equity in funding, facilities, transportation, teacher pay, and instructional materials. Most importantly, Black students and all students deserve to be taught by credentialed and well-compensated educators. The fact that Black students are 1.4 times more likely than white students to be taught by an uncertified teacher makes clear that America has not fulfilled the promise of Brown. To remedy this, there must be a coordinated effort at the federal and state level to attract and prepare more Black credentialed educators who were previously demoted and displaced after Brown during desegregation. Today, Black teachers account for just 6 percent of the teacher workforce, yet they produce greater educational attainment and increase the likelihood of college attendance for Black students.



Conclusion



Racially integrated schools lead to increased graduation outcomes, higher earning potential, and better health outcomes for all students, particularly Black students, with these outcomes continuing beyond K-12. Research also shows that diverse learning environments promote positive academic and social outcomes for white students. Even so, many schools and districts continue to be separated by race and socioeconomic status.



The NAACP, which litigated Brown, is still on the front lines of resolving long-standing desegregated cases such as Sheff v. O’Neill, which began in 1989. The most recent in a series of agreements related to the case was reached in January 2020, making advances to resolve racial and economic segregation experienced by students in Hartford, Connecticut, and surrounding areas within the state. However, legal mandates are not sufficient to reverse the harm caused by Jim Crow laws and segregation. There must be increased federal, state, and local investments made to improve the outcomes of Black students, educators, institutions, and communities. Our nation must remain steadfast in its pursuit of justice to fulfill the promise of Brown.



Weade James is Senior Director, K-12 Education Policy