Brown at 70: The Continued Pursuit Toward Equitable Education

On the 70th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, experts reflect upon its ongoing relevance and spotlight work to address systemic inequities and foster opportunities for those adversely affected by segregation

Nettie Hunt and her daughter Nickie sit on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. Nettie explains to her daughter the meaning of the high court's ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. Photo by UPI/Bettmann via Getty Images

As we approach the 70th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, it is not just a moment for reflection but a call to action. This ruling, which sought to enshrine the ideals of equality and justice in our society, remains as relevant today as it was in 1954. It was a watershed moment in the pursuit of educational equity, declaring the unconstitutionality of segregated schools and mandating the integration of public schools across the United States.

However, as we acknowledge the historical significance of this ruling, we must also confront the stark reality that Brown's promise remains unfulfilled. Today, our schools are, in many ways, more segregated than they were three decades ago. This is evident in the persistent racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic homogeneity of our neighborhoods and, consequently, our schools. Despite numerous efforts and policies aimed at fostering integration, substantial barriers and resistance remain, hindering the progress envisioned by Brown.

In this insightful article by Dr. Terris Ross, Managing Director for the AIR Equity Initiative, we are not just presented with a candid examination of the ongoing challenges but also with a roadmap of promising solutions. The AIR Equity Initiative's significant investment of over $100 million is a testament to its commitment to addressing systemic inequities and fostering opportunities for those adversely affected by segregation.

Evidence of Continued Racial Segregation

While there was some initial progress in integrating U.S. public schools in some parts of the U.S., our schools are more segregated today than they were 30 years ago.

Consider that in the largest U.S. metropolitan areas, more than half of the Black and white populations would have to move to another neighborhood to integrate those areas. In some cities – such as Memphis, Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Birmingham, Alabama – this “dissimilarity index” is over 70 percent.

How did this happen? Simply put, the court-ordered and voluntary measures to foster school integration have had limited long-term success, including magnet schools, open enrollment policies, and school attendance boundary changes. In most areas, schools reflect the communities they are in, and our neighborhoods continue to be homogenous racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically. When a school district tries to change school boundaries or enact policies to foster integration, they are likely to face resistance and even legal challenges. This is despite substantial evidence that diverse schools benefit all students.

Finding and Funding a Way Forward

The AIR Equity Initiative is a $100+ million investment by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) to develop evidence and provide technical assistance that addresses the underlying causes of systemic inequities and increases opportunities for people and communities that have felt the negative effects of segregation. We conduct and fund work in areas where there is a need for more evidence and more collaboration to address longstanding challenges. Improving educational experiences is one of the key areas where AIR Equity Initiatives is investing, with a strong focus on reducing racial segregation.

Part of the work for AIR is to partner with organizations and communities to study and ramp up programs that are showing promise. For example, The Bridges Collaborative, a coalition created by The Century Foundation seeks to advance racial and socioeconomic integration and equity in U.S. schools. AIR is studying the Collaborative’s approach, which gathers education, housing, and community development leaders to inform approaches on school integration. The AIR team is documenting and studying promising practices and will share our findings with the field.

In addition AIR recognizes that many approaches to school integration have failed to make lasting change and that ensuring educational equity will take new and different approaches. To gain insight and fresh ideas, AIR recently issued a call for essays on new and reinvigorated approaches to school integration.

The response was incredible: Experts, practitioners, and those with lived experiences provided new perspectives on the challenges and considered innovative solutions that will make our schools more equitable and better reflect the diversity of our communities. The ideas were supported by evidence and experience and built around five different areas—the federal role, state-based advocacy, community approaches and perspectives, designing learning pathways, and collaborative cross-sector approaches.

AIR will announce $5.8 million in grants on May 17, during an event commemorating the Brown decision at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. These grants will support the development of tools and strategies that will create more integrated, equitable education experiences for students in the U.S.

The AIR Equity Initiative is one of many organizations that is seeking to address inequity and racial isolation in our schools. The Century Foundation, Brown’s Promise, the National Coalition on School Diversity, and others are searching for new solutions to this way-too-old problem.

As the Smithsonian Institution commemorates this historic milestone, we are honored to host discussions and events highlighting both the progress made and the work ahead. By examining evidence-based practices and innovative approaches, we can galvanize a renewed commitment to creating diverse, inclusive, and equitable educational environments for all students.

May this anniversary serve not just as a reflection of past achievements but as a catalyst for future action, ensuring that the vision of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling is fully realized for generations to come.

Editor's Note: On May 17, during an event commemorating the Brown decision, AIR announced $5.8 million in grants to seven universities and nonprofits. These grants will support the development of tools and strategies that will create more integrated, equitable education experiences for students in the U.S.