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Students at Barnard Elementary School in Washington, D.C., one of the first schools to desegregate after Brown. (Library of Congress)
Students at Barnard Elementary School in Washington, D.C., one of the first schools to desegregate after the Brown ruling.

Nearly 68 years ago as a third-grader, Linda Brown was denied access to an all-white elementary school in Topeka, Kansas.

Her death last month was a reminder that we have failed to honor the basic tenet of the U.S. Constitution that “all men are created equal” in the case her father brought forward.

Millions of Americans have studied the iconic Brown v. Board of Education decision in school. The Supreme Court unanimously declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” but remedying the situation — desegregating our nation’s public schools — remains an aspiration more than six decades later.

Related: A Devastating Moment: Teachers and students who lived through it recall Martin Luther King’s assassination

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the only standardized way to measure reading proficiency across the nation, there is a 34 percentage-point gap in fourth-grade reading proficiency between black and white students, and a 23 percentage-point gap between Hispanic and white students.

Our education policies have failed to systemically target resources to communities of color in the same magnitude in which structurally racist policies have marginalized and isolated these same communities. This must change.

For the past seven years, I have led community-wide reading initiatives in Baltimore and Dallas. What I know from both of these experiences is that the “math of reading” in poor communities simply doesn’t work.

Nationally, high-poverty districts spend 15.6 percent less per student than low-poverty districts, according to the U.S. Department of Education. High-poverty districts spend an average of $9,270 per pupil, while low-poverty districts spend $10,721.

There are two ways to solve this equation: target resources to communities of concentrated poverty, or disperse concentrated poverty.

Related: The civil rights hero you’ve never heard of

A recent report, released by a collective of seven nonprofits in the Southeast called the Columbia Group, confirms the need to target education dollars to areas with the highest needs. “States must finally deal with the historic inequities in education that continue to hold back many parts of the region,” the report states.

“Nearly 68 years ago as a third-grader, Linda Brown was denied access to an all-white elementary school in Topeka, Kansas. Her death last month is a reminder that we have failed to honor the basic tenet of the U.S. Constitution that ‘all men are created equal’ in the case her father brought forward.” 

Key recommendations from the report include the need to attract and prepare more quality instructors to work in classrooms and schools, give students the support they need such as access to pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, strengthen the bridge between high school and college, and leverage school finance systems to ensure school funding is targeted and adequate.

The group “Accelerating Campus Excellence” in Dallas is averaging 24 percentage-point gains in third-grade reading proficiency over two years at some of the most economically disadvantaged schools serving predominantly Hispanic and black students.

Many important factors have contributed to this program’s results, such as social and emotional engagement and after-school programming. But a crucial part of the model is paying a stipend to the most qualified teachers in the school district to teach at the lowest-performing, most economically disadvantaged schools.

Related: Teaching kids how battles about race from 150 years ago mirror today’s conflicts

Intentionally targeting the most effective teachers and supporting them in other resource-intensive ways is precisely the type of smart policy required to close our achievement gaps.

But this requires both political will and the collective will of the community to sustain.

In Dallas, the incremental cost per student of approximately $1,300 a year, or 11 percent of current per-pupil funding, would require a tax increase to reach our most economically disadvantaged schools at scale.

The other side of the equation is the need to increase children’s access to opportunity through physical integration into higher-performing schools. This would mean dispersing areas of concentrated poverty that were created through federal housing policies such as redlining.

Physical integration achieves a more equitable spread of resources and power. It disallows the marginalization of poor, minority students because their fate is now tied to those who won’t get left behind: white, privileged children.

Related: Harvard Law grad helps low-income kids aim high

One of the nation’s wealthiest school districts, Montgomery County in Maryland, is also well-known for its results in serving low-income, minority communities.

Montgomery County has the nation’s oldest and largest inclusionary zoning program. Its zoning policy allows the public housing authority to purchase one-third of inclusionary zoning homes within each subdivision to operate as federally subsidized housing. Almost every one of its 131 elementary schools is zoned for a public housing unit.

An analysis that looked at children in public housing from 2001 to 2007 in Montgomery County found that achievement levels of children in public housing in low-poverty neighborhoods far exceeded similar students in the county’s least-advantaged neighborhoods.

Related: The community college “segregation machine”

By the end of elementary school, the large initial achievement gap between children in public housing who attended the district’s most advantaged schools and their non-poor peers in the district was cut by half for math and one-third for reading.

The progress of physical integration is again largely dependent on those who haven’t been historically marginalized. Courtney Everts, a white woman in Los Angeles who founded the organization Integrated Schools, encourages white and privileged families to send their children to local public schools.

Both approaches reverse structurally racist policies that have systemically denied marginalized communities of color equitable access to quality education.

So if as citizens we know the strategies to dismantle inequities in our education system, why have we not been able to balance the scales of justice?

Either we as a nation suffer from cognitive dissonance, or we are just paying lip service to the constitution. May Linda Brown rest in peace as the soul of our nation continues to wrestle with the stains of this contradiction.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Kimberly Manns is the managing director of Early Matters Dallas, an early childhood collective impact organization of more than 150 local partners. She is the former deputy director of policy and communications for the mayor of Baltimore, and a public voices fellow through The OpEd Project.

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