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OPINION: As we talk school reform, let’s learn from where Brown v. Board fell short

The answer to decades of segregated schools seemed obvious: Let’s bus children from urban neighborhoods to suburban schools. That will solve everything. Only, it didn’t.

No one addressed the segregated housing patterns or the banks’ redlining that maintained segregation. No one overhauled the culturally corrupted curriculum that virtually erased black people from history. No one considered the trauma black children experienced when crossing volatile picket lines.

In Wichita, for example, integration efforts remain a partial failure despite noble though grudging efforts undertaken about 18 years after the decision in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation is unconstitutional.

Many now consider Brown v. Board “hallowed but hollow.” Why? Again, look at Wichita. Its schools stand increasingly black and brown and impoverished. Many white families fled to what are today well-funded, tech-loaded and virtually all-white suburban schools.

This history must inform any school reform discussion. Our problem? We ask schools to do the adaptive work we’re unwilling to do, routinely misdiagnosing societal failures as school failures. Then we succumb to our general propensity for work avoidance.

America rushed through much of the diagnosis because testimony in Brown v. Board uncovered segregation’s deeply damaging effect on black children. We settled for mere inclusion, and structural racism proved too much for inclusion to overcome.

That period of integration laudably lowered barriers of mistrust between the races but at steep costs to black educators, traumatized black students and disintegrated black communities.

Wichita’s desegregation diagnostics should have started with two issues moored outside the school system: the bitter opposition by a sizeable minority and the power differential white parents enjoyed over black parents.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries, professor of history at Ohio State University, says we underestimated the resolve of desegregation opponents. (Editor’s note: The print version of this column incorrectly identifies Dr. Jeffries’ first name with that of his older brother, Hakeem.)

At a 2014 symposium on the Brown decision, Jeffries said that a three-pronged Brown counteroffensive was launched consisting of the grassroots picketing of schools, lawsuits challenging busing and the development of homogeneous, suburban private schools.

Much of that occurred in Wichita.

Gretchen Eick, professor emerita at Friends University, recounted in her book “Dissent in Wichita” school board discussions about forfeiting federal funds rather than integrating. Leon Panetta, working for President Nixon’s Office of Civil Rights in the 1970s, found the Wichita school district in violation of the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act.

That “resolution” banished black students to decades of largely one-way busing. White children unlucky enough to lose a busing lottery were bused, but usually for only about a year or two.

Consequently, the district built no new assigned attendance area (AAA) schools for years.

The result? Black AAA homeowners, via their tax dollars, subsidized new school construction in white areas and stabilized home values for white homeowners while their own property values – for want of AAA school construction – tumbled. The community owes them for that sacrifice.

Schools weren’t the central problem.

We used innocent and frightened black children as social crash-test dummies to absorb integration’s impact, substituting inclusive charity for corrective justice. We’re still mistaking charity for justice and leaving the adaptive work of confronting segregation’s legacy to children and school administrators.

Society has to stop asking schools to do what it’s afraid or unwilling to do.

Mark McCormick previously served as editor of The Journal.

Summer Journal Cover

A version of this article appears in the Summer 2019 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit  https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/store/one-year-subscription-to-the-journal-4-upcoming-issues/.

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