70 Years after Brown Decision, School Segregation Getting Worse

28 May 2024

May 17 marked the 70th anniversary of one of the most notable cases in U.S. Supreme Court history – Brown versus Board of Education.

The 1954 decision declared segregated schools unconstitutional. It also struck down the principle of "separate but equal," which was used as the basis for U.S. government policies related to racial segregation. President Dwight Eisenhower famously sent federal troops to southern states to enforce the decision.

Today, American schools cannot legally restrict students based on race. But because of long-held economic divides and other issues, some schools have become segregated in a de facto way.

FILE - Third-grade students do school work during class at Hanby Elementary School, Feb. 15, 2011, in Mesquite, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)
FILE - Third-grade students do school work during class at Hanby Elementary School, Feb. 15, 2011, in Mesquite, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

‘Moving backward'

Some researchers say that despite the continuing ban, school segregation has gotten worse over the years, even as the U.S. overall has become more racially diverse.

A team from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) recently released a report examining the ways segregation has changed in U.S. schools. The report is called "The Unfinished Battle for Integration in a Multiracial America – from Brown to Now." It was written by two UCLA professors – Gary Orfield and Ryan Pfleger.

The study found that schools have gotten less white, and more Latino, Asian and multiracial. But it also noted the number of schools considered "intensely segregated" tripled from 1988 to 2021. The study defined intensely segregated as schools with white student populations of less than 10 percent. About 20 percent of American schools are intensely segregated, up from 7 percent in 1988, the report found.

The study's writers state that "schools of the South are dramatically less segregated than the apartheid conditions that had always existed before Brown." However, Orfield and Pfleger add that the Supreme Court decision's historic aims "have not been attained and, as this report shows, we have been moving backward."

The researchers found that Black and Latino students were the most highly segregated populations. In 2021, schools overall were 45 percent mostly white. But on average, Black students attended schools that were about 76 percent non-white. For Latino students, the school average was about 75 percent non-white.

Education experts say segregation especially hurts Black and Latino schools. This is because they are often underfunded and have higher rates of teacher shortages. Non-white school districts receive $23 billion less funding than mostly white school districts, a 2019 report by the nonprofit group EdBuild found.

"The trends are toward increasing double segregation, by both race or ethnicity and poverty," the UCLA study said.

Researchers at another California university, Stanford, found that schools are getting more segregated even as neighborhoods have gotten more diverse and racial economic inequality has improved.

The "findings indicate that policy choices – not demographic changes – are driving the increase," said Sean Reardon. He is a professor at Stanford who specializes in how poverty and inequality affects education.

Reintegrating Schools

The UCLA study noted that desegregation policies following the Brown decision were generally aimed at improving access to schools for Black students.

But 70 years later, the issue of school segregation has gotten more complex. Latinos now make up the largest U.S. minority group and the Asian population has also grown. "Most Americans of all racial groups think integrated schools are better, but are divided about what, if anything, to actually do," the UCLA study states.

The researchers offered several suggestions for improving integration. One is for districts to increase efforts to register students from poorer areas and offer more diverse school programs.

A 2018 article by the nonprofit group Edutopia described how some school districts have been successful in improving integration. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, every school must have a balance of wealthier and poorer families. In San Antonio, Texas, bilingual schools and other specialized programs have brought in students from many different backgrounds.

And in New York City, schools have made progress by removing standardized testing requirements. Others introduced admittance systems that take into account whether a student is poor, homeless or a non-native English speaker.

"American schools have been moving away from the goal of Brown and creating more ‘inherently unequal' schools for a third of a century," writers of the UCLA study wrote. "It will soon become understood once more that ... schools that serve all children together with equity are central to any good outcomes."

I'm Dan Novak.

Dan Novak wrote this story for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

segregate — v. to separate groups of people because of their particular race, religion, etc.

de facto — adj. used to describe something that exists but that is not officially accepted or recognized

diverse — adj. different from each other

dramatic — n. sudden and extreme

apartheid — n. a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race.

attain — v. to accomplish or achieve

demographic — n. the qualities of a specific group of people

access — n. a way of getting near, at, or to something or someone

integrate — v. to combine to form or create something

inherent — adj. belonging to the basic nature of someone or something