Editor's Notebook: Race and wealth still determine a child's chance at a good education

May 1, 2004

Peggy Boyer Long
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Samantha gave a lot of thought to her chances for a good education. A student at East St. Louis High, a down-and-out school in a virtually all-black, low-income district, she had once tried to transfer to a better school in nearby Fairview Heights, a mainly white district in the state’s Metro East region. It didn’t work.

She knew the unspoken reason, intuitively. The children of East St. Louis learn such lessons early. So Samantha was ready when writer Jonathan Kozol asked whether she thought it was a matter of race, or money. “‘Well,’ she says, choosing her words with care, ‘the two things, race and money, go so close together — what’s the difference? I live here, they live there, and they don’t want me in their school.’”

Kozol’s reporting appeared in his 1991 book Savage Inequalities. It’s a useful reference this month, the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

That landmark decision has been called nothing short of revolutionary. And it was. In his opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.”

How far have we gone toward meeting this moral challenge? Even on the narrowest grounds, not far enough. And we’re falling back. A new report by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University shows the nation’s schools are becoming more segregated in all regions for African-American and Hispanic students. These authors, too, see race and poverty as integral. Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee write, “The vast majority of intensely segregated minority schools face conditions of concentrated poverty, which are powerfully related to unequal educational opportunity. Students in segregated minority schools face conditions that students in segregated white schools seldom experience.” 

In fact, their study rated Illinois among the top four most-segregated states for black students. “In Illinois,” they write, “61 percent of black students and 40 percent of Latinos were in these intensely segregated schools.”

In a broader sense, they, Kozol and others find that the “physical facilities and ‘tangible’ factors” Chief Justice Warren referred to are not equal in racially segregated schools. In fact, they are not equal in poor schools, whether they are urban and black or rural and white.

For at least three of the five decades since Brown, the state of Illinois has known this. Yet it has failed to equalize spending for poorer schools. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count 2004 report for Illinois details the gap: Some elementary schools spend $4,000 for each student’s education, while others spend $18,000. The numbers reflect the difference in local property wealth, the fulcrum for all calculations in school finance. And that group rates Illinois worst in the nation in this disparity in spending between property rich and property poor districts. 

Too many children, argues Voices for Illinois Children, which compiled this state’s information, aren’t getting the education they need. But “the failure rate is worse in high-poverty schools and those with large numbers of racial and ethnic minority students.”

What does this discrimination look like? Though his numbers are dated and the faces have changed, we can turn again to Kozol’s account. East St. Louis High wasn’t even the worst school he visited in that destitute city. But the problems were severe. The science labs were 30 to 50 years outdated, textbooks scarce. There weren’t many library books, and those were secondhand. There weren’t enough teachers for all classrooms, leaving some students unattended. The school’s heating system didn’t work, leaving some rooms cold and others sweltering. 

What learning did occur in such disarray would have to be called mira-culous. What cannot be said by any stretch is that the right to educational opportunity was available to East St. Louis students on equal terms with the students in Fairview Heights, or the state’s other richer and whiter schools.

Kozol crisscrossed the country between 1988 and 1991. “What seems unmistakable,” he wrote then, “but oddly enough, is rarely said nowadays, is that the nation, for all practice and intent, has turned its back upon the moral implications, if not yet the legal ramifications, of the Brown decision.”

Matters haven’t improved much in the intervening years. And they could get even worse under the federal No Child Left Behind requirements as states begin to penalize failing schools with high numbers of low-income and minority students.

For three decades, reform advocates have challenged school financing plans on grounds they violate various states’ constitutions, initially on the basis of equity in spending, now more often on adequacy, especially for poor districts with greater needs. Some challenges have resulted in change. 

But overall the record is discouraging. 

The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, offered a blueprint. The Funding Gap: Low-Income and Minority Students Still Receive Fewer Dollars in Many States puts this at the top of the list: Reduce reliance on wealth to fund schools by reducing reliance on the property tax.

The reasons behind failure of this reform in Illinois have been debated for years, with political will being the prime suspect. But Kozol posits a more fundamental reason for the failure to give other people’s children the same chances we give our own: a deep-seated desire to preserve privilege masked by an illusion of fair play.

So raise a glass to Brown. Then visit some schools in a poor community. It will prove a sobering experience. 


Events commemorating
the 50th anniversary 
of Brown v. Board: 

Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, May 2004