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Byline: Ralph Shaffer

NINETEEN fifty-four's U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, arguably the most significant case decided by that court in the 20th century, marks its 50th anniversary on Monday. Having shaped the course of American education for the past five decades, it's time for a report card.

Brown's grades aren't good. The optimism with which much of the country greeted the decision faded long ago as unexpected ramifications of the ruling left their questionable imprint on the nation's public schools. The great benefits it was supposed to bestow only partially materialized.

Martin Luther King's 1963 ``I Have a Dream'' speech rested on Brown. His hope that one day African-American children would be judged on the quality of their minds and not on the shade of their skin could only be achieved through a public school system that did not discriminate on the basis of race and ethnicity. All kids were entitled to an equal education in an environment that didn't ostracize some because of their color.

California's public schools, segregated by state law in 1870 and even earlier by the practices of local school boards, weren't immediately affected by Brown. A decade before Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the unanimous opinion in that case, outlawing state-sponsored educational discrimination as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause, Gonzalo Mendez sued the Westminster School District when his 8-year-old daughter was forced to attend a school for children of ``Mexican and Latin descent.''

In a decision that foreshadowed Brown, federal district judge Paul McCormack found, in an argument that English-only advocates would raise half a century later, that ``Spanish-speaking children are retarded in learning English by lack of exposure to its use because of segregation.'' Segregation, McCormack ruled, fostered antagonisms among the children, suggesting the inferiority of those ostracized and denying equal protection.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit in 1947 unanimously upheld McCormack's decision. Within days the Legislature repealed, with then-Gov. Warren's approval, the last laws providing for segregated schools.

Thus California schools were already in compliance with the Fourteenth Amendment before Brown. Yet this state's schools remained segregated, though not by legislation. The Warren court found that segregated schools were inherently unequal, but in its earliest form, the Brown decision simply meant that the state could not by law segregate schools on the basis of race or ethnicity.

And California law didn't require segregation. The discrimination here resulted from housing patterns that developed over decades through restrictive covenants that had prevented the sale or rental of homes and apartments to nonwhites, peer pressure that intimidated those who would sell or rent to nonwhites and economic conditions that forced minorities to live in cheaper housing tracts distinguished by the absence of white residents.

Only when Brown was broadened to include the de facto segregation that existed in California did the Warren Court's ruling affect this state. Within a decade, the state Supreme Court ruled in a Pasadena case that the district had an obligation to end segregation regardless of its causes.

In Los Angeles, parents of black students attending Jordan High, an almost all-black school, complained that attendance lines had been drawn by the school board to keep Jordan black and South Gate High, a short distance away, virtually all white. Thus began, in 1963, Crawford v. L.A. Board of Education, which lingered on in the courts for nearly two decades, resulting in a successful voter revolt against one judge and the retirement of another.

Californians applauded Brown, or at least had no quarrel with it, as long as it was aimed at Southern states with laws that segregated blacks in nearly all phases of life, including education. Such laws no longer existed in this state. But when the courts began moving against attendance zones that were arbitrarily set for the purpose of segregating students, the backlash began.

``Forced busing'' and ``involuntary student assignment'' as tools of integration were denounced by parents who preferred to keep the status quo. Those living in districts outside Los Angeles and Pasadena feared that the court would follow the lead established in Delaware and order busing of inner-city kids into the suburbs, with suburban students bused into formerly all-black schools.

While involuntary busing in Los Angeles ended with a ballot initiative that prohibited such solutions and by anti-busing decisions of state appellate courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, California's public schools suffered enormously as a result of the prolonged conflict.

``White flight'' did take place, as Anglo families moved into suburbs to escape the increasing minoritization of L.A.'s public schools. As an alternative to moving, kids were enrolled in private schools - requiring long drives in many cases by the same parents who had denounced the amount of time wasted daily in court-ordered compulsory busing.

In Los Angeles during the dozen years of the busing controversy, the proportion of white students in the district's schools fell from over 50 percent to less than 25 percent. In Pasadena, a neighborhood school with hundreds of white students and virtually no blacks quickly became composed mostly of blacks and Hispanics, and the number of neighborhood children attending that school could be counted on two hands.

Other parents turned to charter schools or home schooling, both of which have expanded dramatically during the last decade. Public school funding is now available to both, increasing the strain on financing the traditional school system. Even the California Teachers Association gave in, supporting initiative legislation in recent years that granted additional money to chartered institutions, which are in many cases the equivalent of private schools.

Fifty years after Brown, what was once a noble dream faces a bitter reality. Whatever else Brown may have done for race relations, it must stand accountable for the fact that the opposition it engendered became a major factor in the demise of America's public schools.





Fifty Years Later

Gregg Miller/Staff Artist
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 16, 2004

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