Sixty years ago, the plight of Linda Brown, a third-grader who had to travel a mile by bus to her segregated black school even though there was a neighborhood school seven blocks from her home, became the symbol of America's racist underbelly.
Now, the very language that activists called upon to right that wrong is again at the center of a national fight over the direction of public schools, as a mostly white education reform movement faces the complexities of using civil rights rhetoric to boost its agenda. Meanwhile, opponents argue that the legacy of Linda Brown should look like something else entirely.
"This is an issue with civil rights, where the one thing that would actually be revolutionary would be to actually work with the community to improve their schools," said Jitu Brown, a Chicago organizer and activist with the organization Journey for Justice (and no relation to Linda). "We have been continuously burned and destabilized by people who don't have to bear the consequences of these policies."
Back in the 1950s, Linda's father, Oliver Brown, joined the NAACP in a suit that became known as Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court ruled that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." The case became the rallying cry of the civil rights movement, uniting people who sought racial justice in a country they saw as patently unfair.
Sixty years later, no one disputes that the vision of that movement has not been fully realized. Schools are as segregated as ever. Students of color tend to be concentrated in schools with fewer resources. Black and Latino students trail their white peers on standardized tests.
But there is tremendous disagreement on how to fix these issues. While the battle over how to improve the nation's schools is often portrayed as "school reformers" fighting teachers' unions on education policies -- such as evaluations based on test scores, closing underperforming public schools and the expansion of public charter schools -- the subtext is often missed. The fight over education reform is also a war of words, one in which two sides grapple for the legacy of Brown and the civil rights movement.
Hardly a day goes by in which U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan doesn't utter the phrase "Education is the civil rights issue of our generation." He used it as recently as Friday to describe the motivation for his administration's agenda on "Morning Joe."
Many public figures not traditionally identified with the civil rights movement have used that phrase as a battle cry, including journalists Steven Brill and Juan Williams, along with former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. This week, Duncan's refrain turned up in the headline of a USA Today op-ed by Rhee's husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. In 2012, as the Washington Examiner notes, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called school choice "the civil rights struggle of our day."
In short, the argument goes that black students receive fewer educational opportunities and achieve lower outcomes, so almost anything that can change that reality should be tried. One such option is charter schools, which are publicly funded but can be privately run, and can provide more flexible approaches, sometimes in the place of shuttered underperforming neighborhood schools. A parallel strategy calls for teachers to be scrutinized in accordance with their students' performance, so that teachers who rank highest on those metrics can then teach minority students. Tools like the Common Core State Standards can also be used to give black students access to rigorous material.
But some opponents say this language is being co-opted to justify policies that ultimately undercut minorities. They argue that charter schools exacerbate segregation; that closing underperforming schools displaces black teachers and students; that standardized tests shortchange black students overall; and that the Common Core can't help if minority schools aren't given the funding to help bridge the gap between the current system and increased expectations.
Last week, Journey for Justice, a national coalition of community groups that often aligns with teachers' unions, filed three federal complaints alleging that school closures in three cities are discriminatory and violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. "When abolitionists created public education several centuries ago … it was done so to make sure that normal citizens had the opportunity to stand on their parents' shoulders," Jitu Brown said.
To activists like Brown, equity in 2014 is harder to define than some politicians seem to think.
"What we hear in a lot of the rhetoric that is promoted by those who privatize our schools ... is that they want to make sure that all schools are equitable and children who come from one particular race don't have a lower set of opportunities," he said. "We act as if we've done that work ... We believe that before we get to questions of school choice, we have to get to stability."
Under the banner of school equity, Brown said, school closures in places such as Chicago have, in some ways, made things worse for minority kids by forcing them to cross gang lines in order to get to school. "We've warned [reformers] about the horror that would happen," he said.
Students like Parrish Brown, 16, saw these consequences firsthand. (Parrish is also no relation to either Linda or Jitu Brown.) At Dyett Academic Center, a public school in Chicago, he said, administrators responded to a lack of resources and low performance by creating programs that started to turn the school around. But in 2011, the school district decided to shut Dyett down. "The students of Dyett deserve better than this," Brown said. "We're fighting to keep the school open."
Lily Eskelsen, a Latina former Utah teacher of the year, is broadly expected to be next in line for the leadership of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union. When asked about the language of the education reform movement in a recent interview with The Huffington Post, Eskelsen did not hold back.
"Let's talk about this education reform movement. It is the ultimate bait and switch," Eskelsen said. "I do get fairly passionate about the corporate reform movement, because it has taken us down the wrong path. It has been an excuse to say, 'We don't have to worry about having equity in our school funding, making sure all kids get what all kids need.' We offer them a voucher and say, 'Here's a little ticket to nowhere, here's a little ticket where you can find a private school that accepts you.' That gives us an excuse to not worry about the fact that your roof is leaking."
The Obama administration, Eskelsen said, has done well with the bookends -- early childhood education and college affordability -- but on K-12 education, she is displeased. "You talk about the rhetoric that came out of the department," she said. "Then we saw the slew of, 'How many multi-choice commercial tests can we put in front of these kids?'"
Yet the consensus might be shifting. Reformers are acknowledging that their lack of diversity might explain a dearth of community buy-in. Earlier this spring, a panel at the NewSchools Venture Fund Summit, an education technology venture capital group, focused on this issue.
"People are attacking the work we're doing right now because we're not doing it the way our community gets down," said Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Kaya Henderson.
Similarly, Howard Fuller, a Marquette University professor, said he spent time talking to stakeholders in New Orleans about school reform and was told that "education reform has been done to us."
"This cannot be the way that this movement operates," Fuller told the panel audience. "The people who are being liberated must be a critical part of their own liberation."
People who have previously been adamant about using the education reform toolbox in calls for equity might be shifting their tone as well. In a recent speech, John King, the schools chief of New York state who is known for his promotion of charter schools and the Common Core, used the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Ed as the framework to call for fostering "greater socioeconomic and racial integration" through initiatives such as inter-district magnet schools and redrawing school boundaries. And Duncan himself has used the anniversary to highlight a new, more conciliatory initiative, a Race to the Top competition that focuses on equity, as well as his push to expand preschool.
"To solve the big problems we need everyone to be able to work together," Duncan wrote in a blog post commemorating the anniversary. "No one's talent can go to waste."