Brown v. Board of Education: Illinois still faces segregation issue

May 1, 2004

Brown v. Board of Education
Credit Charlotte Observer

After five decades of increasing integration, American schools are now moving in the other direction, toward more segregation for African-American and Latino students. In fact, the new study out of Harvard University making that contention names Illinois among the states that continue to have the most segregated schools.

This month marks a half century of the country’s attempts to realize educational equality. On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that the policy of “separate, but equal,” which had been law since 1896, was unconstitutional. In the 50 years since, public schools are no longer segregated by race as policy. 

The driving force behind inequality now is poverty.

“We are celebrating a victory over segregation at a time when schools across the nation are becoming increasingly segregated,” say the authors Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee in their report, Brown at 50: King’s Dream or Plessy’s Nightmare?

Even as Illinois celebrates the Brown decision in commemo-rative events throughout the year, government data show the land of Abraham Lincoln has made little progress toward equality in its schools. Orfield and Lee report that in 2001 Illinois was among the four most segregated states, along with California, Michigan and New York.

“Chicago was and is one of the nation’s most segregated metropolitan communities; the Midwest and the state of Illinois have been consistently among the nation’s most segregated in terms of their schools.” In 2001, 61 percent of black students and 40 percent of Latinos in Illinois were in “intensely segregated schools,” according to the report.

Federal statistics show that poverty and segregation by race are inextricably linked. The report points out that a great many black and Latino students attend schools in areas of concentrated poverty. Children in these schools, it says, tend to be less healthy, to have weaker preschool experiences, to have only one parent, to move frequently and to have unstable educational experiences.

Their teachers are likely to be less experienced or unqualified; their classmates are likely to be lower achieving; and their class offerings are likely to include many remedial and few demanding precollegiate courses. These schools tend to have higher teacher turnover, and many schools are deteriorated and lack resources. Current state and federal education policies often brand these schools as “failing” and threaten sanctions.

“Future historians,” write Orfield and Lee, “will doubtless be incredulous that much of the energy in this period was devoted to dismantling desegregation where it was a clear success and in developing ways to harshly sanction segregated minority schools, which almost always had concentrated poverty and many forms of educational inequality, when their test scores were lower than middle-class white suburban schools.”

Moving to those suburbs to place children in better, more competitive schools has not always been the answer either. 

The report found that, nationwide, there’s been a “massive migration” of Latino and black families to the suburbs, which has produced newly segregated and unequal schools. Charter and private schools are more segregated than public schools.

“We have embarked on major expansions of educational choice,” write Orfield and Lee, “but without the basic civil rights tools developed nearly 40 years ago that are essential to assuring that choice fosters rather than undermines the goal of the Brown decision.”

Events commemorating
the 50th anniversary 
of Brown v. Board: 
http://www.bvb50.org/

Illinois Issues, May 2004