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Brown v. Board of Education and Education Reform

Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka, Kansas

Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka, Kansas, USA - Monroe Elementary school, where racial segregation was challenged in 1954

Fifty-eight years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously issued its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education that "separate educational facilities" for black and white students were "inherently unequal" and therefore unconstitutional. The ruling overturned the May 18, 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that continued to uphold the legality of Jim Crow laws and other forms of racial discrimination.

In January this year, the Manhattan Institute released a study on racial segregation using the U.S. Census Bureau’s neighboorhood-level data on race for 1890-2010. The study found that the “most standard segregation measure shows that American cities are now more integrated than they’ve been since 1910.” According to the study, the decline can be “partly attributed to the reform of these government practices and partly to changes in racial attitudes that can be considered both cause and consequence of policy change.” However, some experts raised important cautions regarding the study’s findings, including that the decline in busing to achieve racial integration has resulted in some public schools that are more segregated than before.

While race is not likely to be a central issue in this election, President Obama delivered a major speech on race and politics in the 2008 campaign. He directly addressed the Brown v. Board of Education ruling and its implications for education in his speech, asserting:

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students.

Education reform will no doubt be an important component of the 2012 election. In a Politico op-ed this week, Grover Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, argued that Romney should select Bobby Jindal as his running mate because of the educational reforms Jindal has enacted in Louisana as governor. According to Norquist:

Education could be the No. 1 civil rights issue of our time and has major implications for the nation’s future. When it comes to education reform, Obama has offered gimmickry, with contests and calls to throw more money at the problem, lest he upset the teachers union bosses who help bankroll Democratic campaigns.

Jindal, in stark contrast, last month signed one of the most significant school choice bills in U.S. history. It allows 380,000 students from low- and middle-income households across Louisiana to escape substandard schools.

Other rising GOP stars are also concentrating on education reform. Furthermore, as senior adviser to Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell Jasen Eige notes, many reforms that are being passed at the state leve reflect what President Obama is doing. According to Eige,  “Overall, it is bipartisan and some of it falls down to how exactly you achieve the goals.”

Christopher P. Loss, assistant professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University and former Miller Center National Fellow, might also raise a bone of contention with Norquist regarding partisan differences in education reform. As Loss asserted on Riding the Tiger last month:

Voters looking for major policy differences between the two candidates this November will have to look pretty hard to find any. Indeed, the striking thing about contemporary education politics is just how much agreement there is among policymakers and the public that the education system is broken and needs to be fixed...

President Obama has garnered the support of the major teacher unions despite embracing an education agenda that differs little from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Race to the Top, the President’s signature education reform, has extended the NCLB [No Child Left Behind] framework, providing competitive federal grants to states willing to try experiments (i.e., “reforms”) that link teacher pay and performance to student achievement. The distinction between Obama and his predecessor is purely a semantic one—a distinction without a difference.

The anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education offers the opportunity to reflect upon racial inequality -- both on progress made and the progress that remains to be made. As candidates debate broader education reform and the appropriate role for federal, state and local governments leading up to the election, the conversation about racial inequality in education should be kept alive. How do you think politicians might consider racial inequality and education reform?

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