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Brown’s unfinished work

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Esther Cepeda
May 16, 2011
— May 17 marks the 57th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared that state laws segregating black and white students were unconstitutional.

Though the court’s unanimous decision established that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” America’s painful history of denying equal education to Native Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics and some Asian-Americans left a lasting legacy of economic inequality and minority underachievement in this country.


Until the late 1920s, Native Americans were required to go into off-reservation boarding schools to be assimilated, and in 1885 Chinese-American students were relegated to Chinese-only schools after the California Supreme Court ordered San Francisco to provide those children with an education. In the 1930s, Mexican-Americans fought against, and won freedom from, Mexican-only schools during the Lemon Grove School District incident in California and, of course, the African-American “Little Rock Nine” confronted the Arkansas National Guard at the doors of Central High in 1957.


Obviously, things have gotten much better. But look at today’s headlines and it’s clear we need more improvements in the educational system to provide equally available, rigorous and effective education for students of all colors.


Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education had to reiterate, in writing, the Supreme Court’s 1982 decision recognizing the right of all children to attend public school, regardless of immigration status, as long as they meet the age and residency requirements set by state law. The action came after complaints that some school districts were asking parents to provide proof of immigration status before allowing them to enroll their children in public schools.


And two African-American mothers in Ohio and Connecticut have had criminal charges brought against them this year for enrolling their children in schools outside their home districts. Their crime? They were trying to “steal” a better education than what was available in their own impoverished communities.


What if we lived in a perfect world where income and local property values were not intimately connected with the quality of education and students weren’t segregated by race as much as by family income?


According to the Alliance for Excellent Education’s new “Education and the Economy” policy briefing, if just half of the African-American, Latino, Native American/Alaska Native, and Asian-American/Pacific Islander students had finished high school instead of dropping out last year, 378,200 new graduates would likely have created as many as 30,000 new jobs and increased the gross domestic product by as much as $5.4 billion by the time they reached their career midpoints.


Those new graduates’ increased wages and higher levels of spending would likely have helped boost state revenues by as much as $412 million during an average year. Thirty-eight percent of those new high school graduates would have probably enrolled in a postsecondary program. And these figures don’t include the economic gains to be realized from also turning attention to the approximately 535,000 white high school students who are estimated to have dropped out last year.


Sure, graduating half of all annual high school dropouts is a pipe dream to some. But it may be a worthy goal for a future anniversary of Brown vs. Board of education.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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