Does Brown v. Board of Education represent a historical event or an ongoing national journey? As we mark the 66th anniversary of the monumental decision that ended legal segregation, the implications of that question and the complexities of the implementation of the decision could not be more important.
Many of us engaged in educational equity work have wondered how to observe the anniversary. On the one hand, Brown reflects our society’s capacity to look at a condition that is unjust, declare it unjust, and create legal remedies to bend the system toward justice. On the other hand, two-thirds of a century after Brown, our schools remain deeply segregated across a variety of dimensions that dictate vastly different learning opportunities based on race, income, ability levels, and a variety of other factors.
The challenges of this moment expose and deepen these inequities. While some students experience COVID-19 school closures as an inconvenience, the situation is dire for many students. Black and brown students are overrepresented among those facing food and housing insecurity, students in low-income and rural areas are overrepresented among those facing connectivity issues, and students with disabilities are overrepresented among those unfairly blamed for why the system isn’t working. Couple that with the stark overrepresentation of marginalized people in unemployment rates and COVID-19 deaths, and we are faced with a vicious and systemic cycle of oppression, harm, and impact on our most vulnerable students, families, and communities.
As we inventory the intentions that Brown fulfilled in unintended and undesirable ways, we can still draw hope from the fact that individuals, conscientious objectors, fought to make an extraordinary policy change. COVID-19 presents the challenge and necessity to once again forcefully pursue policy change that disrupts systemic inequities in education. As this school year comes to an end and we begin planning for the next one, we challenge educators, school and district administrators, and state policy makers to wrestle with the essential questions of how to equitably serve all students with quality education.
The questions are not easy, but they are necessary. How can we ensure that all students have access to the learning opportunities they need to succeed? How are we holding ourselves accountable to the success of all students ? What supports are we providing educators of the most traditionally disadvantaged students so that they can do their jobs effectively?
When we often hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assertion that the arc of history is long but bends towards justice, we may remain complacent with a sense of inevitability. “The arc will bend eventually,” we might think. The reality is much more complex. The arc bends when we raise the right issues, bring voices at the margins to the decision-making tables, and commit the necessary investments to make justice a reality.
We must do our part. As part of the COVID-19 Education Coalition, a group of 70 educational organizations, we challenge decision-makers to take an equity and inclusion pledge. We ask educators, school and district leaders, and state policymakers to raise the difficult conversations and take tangible and essential steps to support every learner, starting with these questions. We must act and scale support to ensure that our most vulnerable populations, including low-income students, students of color, English language learners, and those with disabilities, have access to the services and resources they need to narrow opportunity gaps that have widened even more due to school closures.
We do this believing that this effort inevitably reflects the best of what made Brown a historic decision: individuals banding together, declaring current conditions as unacceptable, and strategically demanding justice in both policy and practice.