More than 65 years ago, on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court declared state-sponsored school segregation unconstitutional. With the Brown vs Board of Education decision, the Court promised education on “equal terms.” The following PBS video adequately reports about the Supreme Court’s historical rejection of segregation in America’s Southern schools (Brown vs Board of Education, Topeka, KS):
Now, on the fiftieth anniversary of this decision, we ask ourselves how well our society has lived up to its promise. Martin Luther King Jr. described Brown in words similar to these “a fantastic beacon light of hope for millions of the world’s disinherited people who only had their dreams of freedom.”
Yet, a beacon may light the way to a destination without actually taking us there. As King foresaw, the forces opposed to racial justice and educational opportunity have stymied almost every legal mandate to implement schooling on equal terms. Today, the beacon still shines, but the journey to equal terms for low-income communities of color continues.
What is Brown’s legacy in Los Angeles? African American and Latino students in California are less likely to attend racially integrated schools than students in all but 3 other states, and this segregation is especially pronounced in Los Angeles. Basic educational resources—qualified teachers, adequate textbooks and learning materials, and decent facilities—are distributed unequally across California schools serving different racial and economic groups. These problems are felt most acutely in Los Angeles-area schools.
Although Brown’s 50th anniversary finds Los Angeles schools both separate and unequal, it also arrives at a moment of historic opportunity. On May 17, 2000, an unprecedented coalition of advocates for justice sued state officials in a landmark case, Williams v. State, on behalf of 1.5 million California students receiving a substandard education. This case shines the beacon of Brown v Board of Education on the state’s constitutional mandate to provide an adequate and equal education to all children.
However, the legal record shows that court cases alone cannot create education on “equal terms.” Los Angeles schooling needs residents who are ready to demand the promise of Brown. This must be a struggle based on commitment and informed by knowledge. Students, parents, and community members most impacted by today’s inequality must understand the depth of our educational problems as well as the reasons inequality continues to occur.
They also must come to these contemporary issues with a deep sense of history. They should understand that the discrimination experienced by Los Angeles students over the past half-century is both ever-changing and familiar. And they should see that they are not alone in a moment of time, but the continuation of a noble, if largely forgotten, struggle for justice.
Teaching to Change LA hopes to help retell this story with the help of parents, students, school personnel, and TCLA readers. This year, Teaching to Change LA will present a series of public dialogues on the meaning of “education on equal terms” and a set of student-created histories exploring the history of struggle for educational justice in Los Angeles.
So do students receive equal and adequate resources for learning? To get the dialogue rolling, we offer a set of interviews on the topic with elected officials, educators, community activists, and students.
South LA teacher Katrina Hasan Hamilton worries that schools serving low-income students of color lack enough qualified teachers—as they did when she attended school in Inglewood many years ago. Alex de Baca, recently released from the California Youth Authority, makes a powerful plea for remedying the deplorable conditions in schools serving incarcerated youth. We invite you to become part of this dialogue and join the struggle to realize Brown’s promise.