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May 17, 2004
Brown v Board of Education: Declining Legacy?

This month marks the 50th anniversary of what some consider the most influential Supreme Court decision of the 20th century: Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled legal structures for the "separate but equal" doctrine for public schools to be unconstitutional and helped to set in motion the Civil Rights Movement. However, as CNN notes, city public schools such as the celebrated Central High School in Little Rock have seen a progressive trend towards resegregation as white students move to the suburbs or into private schools:

But while Central High students sound upbeat about harmony in the hallways, legal and social activists warn that a problem from the past may return to the classrooms in Little Rock and the rest of the nation.

The percentage of white children enrolled in America's public schools -- 60 percent in 2001-2002 -- is 7 percentage points less than a decade before, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. ...

Educators, federal monitors and civil rights activists are warning that an unequal educational system -- one based on wealth and cutting along racial lines -- is returning to classrooms in Little Rock and the rest of the country, creating a skills gap between white and minority students.

"It's an elephant under the rug: It's an obvious problem we're ignoring," says Gary Orfield of Harvard University's Civil Rights Project. "We've abandoned the tools we had."

CNN goes on to discuss the differences between now and 20 years ago, when the US had achieved its best mixture in public-school enrollment and point to a 1991 SCOTUS decision that allowed the return of "neighborhood schools" and ended busing. But CNN misses the main point, which is that the issue no longer is government-mandated apartheid but rather government insistence on blocking market-based solutions to public education through school vouchers that keeps poor children of all colors captive to inner-city schools.

It's no secret that fifty years ago, even before the Brown decision, that wealth began to flow to the suburbs. Fresh from World War II and Korea, the US economy had exploded and new families, especially including the veterans, found cheap land there. That economic dynamic continues to this day, but it obviously favors those with capital. Private schools have long been a haven for the scions of the rich, especially since an average family pays thousands of dollars each year in taxes to support their local public school, and can't afford to pay for both public and private schools. The key to both is that they are market trends, not government-imposed mandates such as the apartheid that Brown overturned.

The key to fixing the problem of Little Rock's "resegregation" problem is to offer more choice to Little Rock's residents, not taking away the choice from the families that surround it. Forced busing from suburban public schools takes away local control of education from those parents whose children are bused, it will only exacerbate the problems of community within the schools; CNN's report covers the lack of shared community already within Central High, and forcing suburban students to attend there will mean more divisions, not less. Moreover, suburban parents who have been satisfied with their local schools may at that point decide to send their children to private schools instead, where they will be outside the reach of forced busing -- leaving just the poorer students to shoulder the load of busing.

Instead, the government should look at the true problems of inner-city parents and allow them the freedom that wealthy parents already have -- the ability to opt out of the public-education monopoly. School voucher programs can be targeted for those districts where demographic representation markedly differs from the population of the area in order to place some limits on their use. Vouchers allow parents the choice of continuing in a local school within their own community or to place their children in private schools of their choice, where the parents can influence the course of their education as any other paying customer would. Allowing for this privatization will create a competitive market, forcing public-education institutions to adapt by becoming more responsive to their customers to retain funding.

The answer to further desegregation of our schools is not more government mandates, but a commitment to more choice for parents regardless of their economic status. It is ironic that in celebrating the end of government-enforced racial programs this month, some people insist on replacing them with another.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 17, 2004 5:51 AM

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