BY JON BUTZON
Today marks the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in the school segregation lawsuit Brown vs. Board of Education.
If you somehow have managed to sleep through some or all of the last 60 years, this is the Supreme Court decision that undid, theoretically anyway, the notion that separate can be equal when it comes to educating America's children. The good justices not only voiced that as their opinion, but backed it up with facts from the leading social scientists of the day. That body of knowledge has expanded over the last six decades.
"Today, we know much more about how school segregation itself produces lower achievement for children from lower-social-class backgrounds," wrote economist Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute in his report "Brown v. Board at 60, Why Have We Been So Disappointed? What Have We Learned?"
Rothstein also observed that the initial gains in integration that followed the Brown decision have been significantly lost, and now "black children are more racially and socioeconomically isolated today than at any time since data have been collected."
So, 60 years later, how are we doing in Charleston?
Sixty-three percent of minority students in Charleston County attend a "racially isolated" school. Enrollment in Charleston County public schools is about 54 percent minority and 46 percent white. If an average enrollment would be 54 percent minority, "racially isolated" would be about 1.5 times that number, or about 80 percent. "Severely racially isolated" would be 90 percent minority enrollment.
Forty-one of the 81 Charleston County public schools are racially or severely racially isolated. There are 12 racially isolated schools attended by 4,557 minority students. Slightly more than 11,000 minority students attend one of 29 schools where the enrollment is severely racially isolated. Tragically, these 41 racially isolated or severely racially isolated schools are also economically isolated.
It seems pretty clear that the notion the justices had of eradicating the "separate" piece of the education equation has been lost in Charleston County, much as it has across the country. We have gone backward. So much for the incessant claims of progress.
But how about the "equal" part of the equation? When we compare the educational outcomes that the school district has produced for white children with the educational outcomes it has produced for African American children, by far our largest minority category, how do we stack up? Warning: The numbers are heartbreaking.
. Advanced Placement: White students took nearly 2,400 AP exams and passed at an 80 percent rate. African American students took 309 - 104 fewer than five years ago - and passed at a 32 percent rate.
. LIFE Scholarship: 47 percent of white students qualified. Only 3 percent of African American students did.
. SAT: Over the last five years the results gap between whites and African American students taking the SAT has grown. It is now over 400 points wide.
. ACT: The district produced an ACT score of 16.2 for its African American students, far below what is needed for college and the identical score from five years ago. Progress? Meanwhile, the school district produced a score of 23.6 for its white students. Equity?
. End of Course Exams: The district produced seven times more failures among African American test takers on the Algebra I EOC exam than it produced A's. For white students, it produced nine times more A's than F's. The district produced 15 times more F's for African Americans on the English I EOC exam than it did A's.
. Reading: The district let 21.4 percent of African American students advance to high school with fourth grade reading skills or lower. For white students it was 4 percent. Any percent is too high. Teaching children how to read should be our bread and butter. But the district shortchanged more than five times as many African American students as white students in this critical skill.
Like the "separate" piece of the equation in the Brown decision, it is apparent that the cornerstone idea of educational equality envisioned by the honorable justices has been lost.
Permanently lost? Well, I suggest the answer to that is more dependent on you and me than on the courts. After all, we have exactly the system of public education in this county that we have settled for. And as long as we settle for less for some children than for others, less is exactly what we are going to get.
A closing word on intent. I have been told that the trick in bringing suit about educational equality and discrimination is to prove intent. Given the current standards for proving intent and short of finding the incredibly stupid memo or some other dumb gaffe that states the intent to discriminate outright, proving intent is pretty difficult.
My father had an answer for that, albeit for the family "courtroom" over which he presided. "But, Dad, I didn't mean to," was routinely met with the response, "That may be, but you didn't mean not to."
I would be hard pressed to prove that we meant to shortchange African American students in Charleston County in their education. But I maintain that we have not done what we need to do to ensure a first-rate education for every child regardless of race or income or zip code.
We may not have meant to shortchange more than 15,000 minority children, but we certainly didn't mean not to.
Jon Butzon of Summerville is a longtime advocate of public education.
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