In my column last month, I pressed for a major effort to revisit school desegregation, informed by the lessons learned from our experiences 30 to 40 years ago. This month, I am pleased to introduce Brown’s Promise, a new initiative hosted by the Southern Education Foundation dedicated to advancing the principles of the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Saba Bireda and Ary Amerikaner, the founders of Brown’s Promise, are seasoned education and civil rights attorneys and policymakers who served in the Obama Administration at the U.S. Department of Education. In this column, I interview Saba and Ary about why this new initiative matters and where their work is headed.
Raymond Pierce: Why start Brown’s Promise, and why now?
Saba Bireda: Research is really clear about a few basic things in education. School funding matters — especially for students living in poverty. Diverse classrooms matter — helping students of all races and backgrounds do better in school and beyond. That’s especially true for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds for one simple reason: resources.
In the nearly 70 years since the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the research has become even more clear that Brown’s promise — a public education system where students from all backgrounds learn together in well-resourced schools — is the right thing to do for all students, especially for Black and Hispanic communities, and for our country as a whole. We’re talking about changing life trajectories here — lifting families out of poverty, avoiding incarcerations, and increasing educational attainment. We’re also talking about the health of the American democracy and economy — reducing bias and prejudice, building students’ problem-solving skills, and laying the foundations for more integrated neighborhoods.
But it’s not just the research that led us in this direction. This work is also personal. I benefited from desegregation efforts in my hometown of Tampa, Florida. Being one of the few Black students in predominantly white schools in grades K-12 was hard. It also changed my life. I went to some of the state’s best, most well-resourced schools. The experiences I had prepared me for Stanford and Harvard Law. And those experiences simply were not available in my neighborhood schools.
Pierce: There were a lot of challenges when desegregation was pursued throughout the country in the decades following Brown v. Board of Education. Shouldn’t those challenges be acknowledged?
Bireda: Absolutely. We certainly can’t go back to a time when Black and Hispanic students suffered long commutes, unwelcoming, unsafe schools, and within-school academic tracking and segregation, all in the name of integration. We have to recognize the serious harm done to Black communities in the pursuit of desegregation through the loss of massive numbers of Black educators, Black administrators, and the closure of schools in Black communities. We also have to acknowledge the degrading implicit and explicit messages to Black students that predominantly Black schools are incapable of preparing students for academic success and that success in the country is only possible when people of color assimilate.
But we can’t let that be the end of the story. Despite those real problems, school desegregation was one of the most important and successful efforts to improve educational and school funding equity in our history. Black students’ graduation rates went up by 30%. So did Black adult wages. Incarceration and poverty rates went down by 22%. And we achieved all that without damaging white students’ performance. We have to build on those successes while learning from the mistakes.
Pierce: Some might argue that the best way to achieve the benefits of integration while avoiding the harms is simply to fully fund schools that predominantly serve students of color and students living in poverty. Why isn’t that the right approach?
Ary Amerikaner: I’ve spent more than a decade working with an amazing group of people to increase funding and equity at the state, local, and federal levels. And we’ve made some really important gains. But we are never going to achieve our funding goals if we don’t tackle the patterns of segregation that still plague our schools. First, because segregation concentrates students living in poverty in certain schools, and serving those schools well is really expensive. So, segregation increases the overall cost of fully funding schools.
Second, segregation requires a tremendous amount of redistribution. In a system funded substantially by local property taxes, states must move money from relatively wealthy districts to relatively less-wealthy districts to achieve equality, much less equity. That sort of redistribution of funds is extremely unpopular.
And finally, segregation is limiting the impact of school funding reform. After all, money doesn’t matter if it doesn’t improve the student experience. Too often, even when we spend more money in schools serving high concentrations of Black or Latino students, those schools still rely on disproportionately high rates of novice teachers, experience constant teacher turnover, lack equal access to more rigorous and advanced coursework, and are overly reliant on harmful exclusionary discipline practices.
We should never stop advocating for more funding for high-poverty schools and schools serving high concentrations of students of color. But we should also stop assuming that the boundaries, borders, and broken policies that create those concentrations of poverty and racially isolated schools are written in stone. We need change from both sides of the equation.
Pierce: I would also suggest that the Brown’s Promise initiative include serious and thoughtful dialogue around the complexities of defining all Black communities as segregated communities with the inherent negative connotations. Moving on, last month I laid out a “both-and” approach to advancing diversity and equity in schools. What would you add to that vision — or even critique about it?
Amerikaner: We agree with most of what you described in your last column. But we’re skeptical of continued efforts to advance funding equity that are silent on ending racial and socio-economic segregation. We do not believe that, at scale, we can equitably resource segregated schools in the long run. We don’t really believe in the idea of funding “separate-but-equal” schools for two reasons.
First, because it’s damaging to our social fabric and our democracy. But also because, as Nikole Hannah-Jones says, “in a country that does not value Black children the same as white ones, Black children will never get what white children get unless they sit where white children sit.” Even if we were to find the political will to pour more money into schools serving concentrations of low-income Black students, I don’t think any of us believe that the teacher churn, availability of rigorous and advanced coursework, and network of social capital and college/career connections will shift for the students in the same meaningful way it would if the school was more racially and socio-economically integrated.
Money is important, but it’s not a silver bullet. Systemic racism is real, and concentrated poverty is a very difficult context in which to run a good school, attract and retain experienced and qualified teachers, etc. That’s why we’re focused on the idea of tackling segregation as a way to ultimately achieve resource equity.
Bireda: I would also challenge this statement in your previous column as the summary of what we view as the next iteration of desegregation efforts:
“Under a strategy of diversity, Black students would transfer from their low performing neighborhood schools — what some might call segregated schools — to be enrolled in high performing schools, with better resources and large white student populations.”
We should reject the premise that ending segregation always means Black students must transfer out and away from their neighborhood schools. Black students should not bear the brunt of this burden. One of the things we’re excited to think about is how to create diverse schools without repeating that historical mistake, looking at where schools are located and developing new school models and incentives to attract and retain white and wealthier families in more diverse schools.
Pierce: This is a bold vision, and it comes at a time when divisive rhetorical and policy attacks are threatening the future of public schools. What will it take to have a system of desegregated, well-resourced schools where all students are safe, supported, and can achieve their goals and fulfill their potential?
Bireda: We created Brown’s Promise to support state and local advocates with research, litigation and advocacy, collaboration, and outreach. In the end, just like every civil rights victory that has come before, these are the necessary ingredients for change. It’s about people-power and relationships. This is a long-term commitment to reigniting our nation’s commitment to fulfill Brown’s promise. It won’t happen overnight, but with sustained energy and focused attention, we can transcend the boundaries that divide students from each other and keep some students from accessing the opportunities they need and deserve.
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