The Return to Separate but Equal 60 Years Post Brown

Originally published by emPower Magazine on Wednesday May 22, 2014. 

As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. Board of Education, which put an end to segregation of public schools, many have argued that the goals of that case have not been met as many black and brown students remain in schools that are highly segregated from their white counterparts. Before the Brown case, segregation in public places was justified through the ruling in 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson that gave birth to the separate but equal policy. The Supreme Court in Brown acknowledged that separate but equal was inherently unequal. Segregated schools received less money, resources, and many communities in the South refused to create schools for blacks, leaving many without the opportunity to receive an education. Integration removed the barrier that kept white and black children from attending the same school, but did it put an end to separate but equal? Or has the growth of charter schools led to a new version of separate but equal?

As charter schools grow in many communities, some states have passed laws demanding that new charter schools be co-located in existing public schools. As the student population in traditional public schools decline leaving some buildings with empty rooms, charter schools have been determined to have a right to those spaces. Proponents of charter schools insist that as a public school, charter schools should have access to public school buildings, even if a school already operates in the building. But what does co-location mean to the traditional public school students who now have to share and or lose their space with the students from the charter school? For many it means a return to separate but equal policies.

In California districts that mandate co-locations, many parents, students, and teachers find themselves in a battle with each other. A Huffington Post article on the effects of co-location reports many teachers in the original public school lose their rooms and access to certain parts of the building when they are forced to co-locate. In some districts the arrival of a new co-located charter schools means certain parts of the building are finally repaired and updated but those areas are only for charter school students:

Cheryl Smith-Vincent says that construction repairs forced her to move out of her third-grade classroom at Miles Avenue Elementary School in April and relocate to a new room. She says that the repairs had long been needed, but were only scheduled once a decision had been made to give that space to a charter school co-locating at Miles in the fall.

Not only did they lose instructional time during the repairs, they could not return to the newly remodeled room because it was for the charter school. What message does that send to the students in the traditional public school? Are we telling them that they are not worthy of a newly remodeled classroom or building but the charter school students are? If the only way to give something to the new charter school students is to take away from the traditional public students then in essence we are creating a system of separate but equal. And as history has proven, separate but equal is inherently unequal.

The new Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio came under fire by some charter school advocates when he tried to block co-locations in NYC. In New York City traditional public schools have been co-located with other public schools for a long time. But the growth of charter schools in the city have increased the amount of co-locations. When de Blasio took office there was a proposal to co-locate 45 schools, 17 of them charters. His administration rejected nine of the requests, three of which were Success Academy Charter Schools run by Eva Moskowitz. Not long after his decision Moskowitz closed her 22 schools for the day and took them to Albany, NY to protest the mayor’s decision. Supporters of charter schools argued that de Blasio was attacking these schools and did not care about black and brown children. But in reality de Blasio was very much concerned with all of the special needs children who would have been pushed out of their traditional public school to make room for the Success Academy students. Not all of the schools in NYC that are targeted for co-location have empty classrooms. Often some children are sent to a different school to make room for the new school. Instead of providing a quality education to all students, co-location pits public school students vs charter school students forcing them to compete for resources and space. This new version of separate but equal not only effects students but also communities who are torn apart by the process of turning families into competitors.

Profit over Progress

Sixty years later is quite obvious that the aims of Brown vs. Board of Education continue to be unfulfilled. Equality of educational opportunities remains elusive for thousands of black and brown children. Education reforms are more likely to exacerbate the problem when they are driven by a profit motive. If you want to close the achievement gap, you invest in public schools for all and provide more resources to the schools and communities that need them instead of less. There is research out there that shows how districts have been successful at improving academic achievement in students of color. None of these success stories include mass school closings, charter school co-location, fast track teacher preparation programs, and teacher de-professionalization. Integration removed the physical barrier that kept black and white children from attending the same school, but it did nothing to make schooling experiences more equitable for all. If we truly want to reform public education then we must stop the return to separate but equal.

To review the research on practices that effectively close the achievement gap read Creating the Opportunity to Learn: Moving from Research to Practice to Close the Achievement Gap by Wade Boykin and Pedro Noguera.

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