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60th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education: Has Anything Really Changed?

Sixty years ago on May 17th, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine made legal by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. This decision changed the way every educational institution at every level in the United States of America was to look and operate; racial integration in schools was now a legal requirement. All schools across the country were ordered to abolish all segregation practices and policies “with all deliberate speed.” The Supreme Court had finally realized that separate was, in fact, unequal; African Americans learned in neglected facilities that lacked sufficient resources while white students went to school in well-mannered buildings and were taught from new books. This capstone Supreme Court decision changed the course of American History, promising to transform America’s color biased education system into a system that would represent and support students of all colors, races, and ethnicities.

Let’s fast forward to May 17th, 2014. Has the Brown v. Board decision kept its promise? Are our schools as racially integrated as they should be? Are our schools funded and supported equally by our local governments?

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Students and community members make their voices heard by marching on Washington.

In many parts of the country, especially in the northeastern states, public schools are just as segregated as they were fifty and sixty years ago. The United States Department of Justice is currently monitoring almost 200 desegregation cases in several school districts across the country that are still struggling to fulfill their legal obligation to racially integrate their schools. Too many American students go to schools that are void of any type of diversity, racial or socioeconomic. According to UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, the average African American student goes to a school where 70% of his peers are non white while the average Hispanic student goes to a school where 73% of his peers are non white. On the other hand, most of America’s white students go to schools where only 24% of their classmates are from minority groups. In more populated urban areas, this divide between races in “academia” only becomes more pronounced. Here in Philadelphia, many African American students attend schools whose student populations are 95% to 100% minority! UCLA’s Civil Rights Project calls these schools “apartheid schools.”

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Mahala Papadopoulos, a student from Masterman High School, represents PSU in Washington, D.C.

Why is the lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity in our schools harmful to our students? Schools and school districts with “majority-minority” populations generally receive less funding and have very limited access to very necessary resources, which causes them to perform poorly. The vicious cycle does not stop there. After these schools are labeled as “low-performing,” many of them are shut down. This entire process consistently puts our students of color at an extreme disadvantage and ultimately displaces them and deprives them of the opportunity to get any education at all. This is the reason why racial integration was made a legal requirement for schools by the Supreme Court sixty years ago; “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” And what about the school-to-prison pipeline? Everyday, African American and Hispanic students are victimized by the harsh policing and discipline policies upheld by our racially and socioeconomically skewed public education system. Students of color are subjected to three times as many suspensions and expulsions as their white counterparts.

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PSU members tell policymakers that building prisons and closing schools is not the answer.

On May 13th, the Philadelphia Student Union and other members of the Journey for Justice Alliance gathered at our nation’s capitol in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. On that Tuesday, we testified and marched to make our demands clear to our policymakers: we want to end the privatization of our public schools, we want quality and affordable education at every level for everyone who wants to learn, we want to eliminate zero tolerance policies, and we want better wages that help lift people out of poverty. We participated in this action to remind our fellow citizens of the promises made to us by that sixty year old landmark Supreme Court decision; every child, regardless of his or her race or social status, should have access to an adequately funded, well-performing public school where he or she can learn and grow alongside classmates of all different races and backgrounds. The legacy of Brown v. Board of Education will only continue to inspire us to persevere and never stop advocating for a better public education system until every public school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and finally the United States is integrated, equal, and exceptional.

About the Author: Kyla J. Ayers is a senior at J.R. Masterman High School and has been an active member of the Philly Student Union since 2011. In the fall, she will be attending the University of Pennsylvania and she plans to major in Biological Basis of Behavior. Working and organizing with PSU has transformed Kyla into a passionate student activst and she plans to continue advocating for Philadelphia’s public schools throughout her college career and beyond.

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