Fifty years ago today, the Supreme Court issued its famous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, unanimously declaring that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The Brown decision, of course, didn’t immediately put an end to segregated public schools. In efforts to circumvent Brown, several southern states set up programs for students to attend private schools. These programs were often used by whites as a way to escape integrated public schools. But since then, an interesting reversal has taken place: Today’s public schools are still highly segregated, while private schools are relatively well integrated.
Consider Atlanta: In nearly 80 percent of the city’s public schools, the student body is more than 90 percent minority. In contrast, only 60 percent of Atlanta’s 53 private schools are so highly segregated.
The situation is similar in other major cities. In Washington, D.C., public schools are 96 percent minority. Ninety percent of students in Houston public schools are minority. In Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago, public schools are respectively 90 percent, 85 percent and 91 percent minority.
According to U.S. Department of Education statistics comparing private with public schools, public‐school classrooms are more likely to be almost all white or almost all minority. More than half of all public‐school 12th graders are in classrooms where more than 90 percent or fewer than 10 percent of the students are minority.
In contrast, only 41 percent of private‐school students are in such highly segregated classrooms. More than a third (37 percent) of private‐school students are in classrooms where the racial mix of the students resembles that of the nation as a whole. Only 18 percent of public‐school students are in such racially mixed classes.
Why are today’s public schools so racially unbalanced? Because students are assigned to schools based on where they live. Public schools reflect the racial composition of the surrounding neighborhoods. Private schools, on the other hand, draw students from across neighborhood boundaries. Thus private schools are more likely to be racially integrated than are public schools.
Black and Hispanic students in urban centers suffer disproportionately from failing public school systems. Today, 45 percent of black and 47 percent of Hispanic students drop out of public high schools (vs. 24 percent of whites). Only 5 percent of black and 10 percent of Hispanic fourth‐graders reach the proficient level on the math portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (vs. 33 percent of whites).
“Status and Trends in the Education of Blacks,” a 2003 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, showed that performance gaps between black and white students ages 13 to 17 have widened in the last decade.
If we are to ever see the day when children of all races have access to good schools, we need policies that let inner‐city parents escape racially segregated and inferior public schools. The tradition of assigning students to a school based on their address must end. Instead, students should be allowed to select among public or private schools.
There are various ways to accomplish this. Some states are using vouchers. Others give tax rebates to individuals or businesses that contribute to scholarship programs that allow low‐income students to attend private schools.
Where such programs exist, they have improved racial integration. In Cleveland, for example, vouchers provide inner‐city families with access to private schools that, on average, are more racially integrated than the neighborhood public schools. Vouchers have also improved integration in Milwaukee, where private schools are more racially integrated than schools in the Milwaukee Public School district.
Much work still needs to be done before we can say that every child has access to a quality education. We need to give parents more options through school choice and not restrict attendance to one neighborhood public school or even to public schools only.
Policies that restrict parental choice are not in harmony with the spirit of Brown v. Board, which sought to open new opportunities for children of all races. Freedom of choice is in large part what Brown sought to achieve. After 50 years, it’s time we made choice a reality.