With its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court forced the federal government to acknowledge that "separate but equal" institutions can't exist. Schools integrated, the Civil Rights Movement flourished, and the goal of equal opportunity for all Americans came into sight.
Yet 60 years later, school segregation is still a problem, but perhaps not in the most expected places. California has the most segregated Latino students, while New York has the most segregated black students, according to a new report from UCLA's Civil Rights Project. In fact, in the Northeast, the portion of black students in schools attended almost completely by minorities is actually higher now than it was in 1968.
The report also showed "extreme overlaps of poverty and racial concentration and help to explain why schools with high concentrations of black and Latino students often have fewer educational resources and lower student outcomes." Black and Latino students in largely-segregated schools "face almost total isolation not only from white and Asian students but also from middle class peers as well."
In other words, segregation may not be legal, but socio-economic factors have led to de facto segregation.
Congress consequently created the "Equity and Excellence Commission" to produce a set of recommendations to the Department of Education for closing the disparities in the education system. Randi Weingarten, president of the teachers' union the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), was part of the commission, which released its report last year.
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"We need to focus on fixing, not closing, neighborhood schools -- on stabilizing, not destabilizing, neighborhoods, whether they be in inner cities or rural areas," Weingarten told CBS News. At the same time, she said, "You can't just say schools should stay the way they are. What are the strategies to make sure any public school is safe, welcoming and collaborative?"
Those strategies include better preparing and supporting teachers -- giving them time to collaborate, for instance -- and creating a curriculum more focused on critical thinking.
It's time to "rethink the dominant federal strategies in education, this top-down, test-based fixation that has narrowed the curriculum and turned teaching and learning into testing and data collection," Weingarten said, calling President Obama's Race to the Top program a "sanction-based system" that punishes poor-performing schools.
On top of that, Weingarten said, it's time to "stop pretending that poverty doesn't matter."
"If a child can see the board with glasses, a child's going to have a better shot at success," she said. "If a child actually has a nutritious breakfast, a child's going to have a better shot at success. If we have places for kids to go in the afternoons, so they're not in the streets, there's a better shot at success."
That can be achieved in part at the local level by enacting policies like Cincinnati's "wraparound" services, which provide social services for students at their schools. At the federal level, it means more support for national programs like Head Start, which promotes school readiness for young children from low-income families.
The Equity and Excellence Commission's report was effectively ignored by Washington lawmakers. In fact, Congress continues to cut funding for programs like Head Start with its ongoing "sequestration." So Weingarten and groups allied with AFT are focusing on bringing about change at the state and local level.
Weingarten will be in Topeka, Kansas on Saturday -- where the Brown v. Board case originated -- to participate in a town hall event focused on education. AFT and its allies are staging similar events in cities across the country, including Boston; Newark, N.J.; and Philadelphia. In addition to advocating for certain reforms, they're protesting Republican governors like Kansas' Sam Brownback and New Jersey's Chris Christie, who have cut education budgets while enacting tax cuts.
"What would be helpful is that we reverse the course of austerity," Weingarten said.
Various advocacy groups have also asked Washington to consider the complexities of diversity -- it's no longer simply an issue of integrating black and white students.
For instance, LGBT advocates are calling on Congress to pass legislation like the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) or the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) to help ensure LGBT students against discrimination and harassment.
"Brown was just the beginning," Darlene Nipper of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said in a statement. "In the spirit of the Court's landmark decision, now we need to intensify our efforts to move millions more hearts and minds to defeat racism and anti-LGBTQ bullying once and for all."
There's also the need to consider teacher diversity. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, minority students will represent the majority of K-12 public-school students for the first time this fall. However, according to the same group, 82 percent of public school teachers are white. Meanwhile, research shows that minority students improve academically if their teachers are also minorities.
"One of the things we know is our teaching force is not diverse, but our student body is," Marybeth Gasman, director of the Center for Minority-Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania, recently told Congress. "It's very important we have a teaching force that reflects this growing diversity."
To help diversify the teaching force, Gasman and others have said, Congress should continue to support Minority-Serving Institutions (MSI's). MSI's make it a point to help minorities earn a higher education, in part by offering a much cheaper education. MSI's also help send minority teachers back into their home communities -- for instance, 55.3 percent of all bachelor's degrees in teaching that are going to Latinos are earned at MSI's.
One idea for improving equity in schools that's gained traction in Washington is increased support for charter schools. A bipartisan bill called the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act recently passed in the House.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., recently called charter schools "one of the real answers" for improving educational opportunities for minority students. "I see them as being equivalent to innovation and allowing people to make changes at a local level," he said.
Some groups, however, have raised the concern that funding for charter schools comes at the expense of funding for public schools -- yet charter schools don't have the same level of accountability, nor are they obligated to take every student.
The grassroots group Journey for Justice produced a blistering report against charter schools, pointing to data showing that charter schools enroll fewer special education students, fewer English language learners, and fewer students with disabilities than comparable public schools. That's a problem in communities where charter schools are overtaking the public school system -- like New Orleans, which will have the nation's first 100 percent charter school district in the country starting this fall.