In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), which was initially a series of five different cases, the Supreme Court concluded on the unconstitutionality of state laws that established racial segregation in state schools. Basically, the decision encouraged state authorities to change approaches to public education to create more inclusive environments (United States Courts, n.d.). First, the case changed education by problematizing race-based prejudice in access to educational services and transforming desegregation into a priority task. It improved public education by encouraging desegregation efforts since attorney generals of states with school segregation policies were supposed to design and submit unique desegregation plans for their territories (United States Courts, n.d.).
By breaking the silence about racial discrimination in education, the case made high-quality public education more accessible for racial minority students (“Black/white & Brown: Brown V. the Board of Education of Topeka,” 2004). In particular, it found reflection in successful desegregation efforts in Arkansas and other states where African-American students were finally allowed to attend white-only schools (“Black/white & Brown,” 2004). Another change to the public education system relates to the career opportunities for racial minority education specialists – before that decision, African-American teachers were allowed to work only in “colored” public schools (“Black/white & Brown,” 2004). At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the decision’s ability to initiate change was reduced because of opposition to desegregation, including entire families’ migration to racially homogeneous communities just to prevent their children from attending integrated schools (“Black/white & Brown,” 2004).
It is possible to say that the promise of the discussed case has been de jure realized. It is of note that, despite defining segregation as an unconstitutional practice, the court decision did not lay state authorities under an obligation to take immediate actions to eliminate segregation and did not implement any time frames for goal completion to hasten school integration (“Black/white & Brown,” 2004). Instead, desegregation was supposed to proceed with “all deliberate speed” (United States Courts, n.d., para. 4). This could give those opposing the decision time to come up with strategies to maintain the “acceptable” proportion of white and non-white students without violating any laws.
Continuing on the promise of the case, the court decision was followed by the emergence of segregation academies or private segregated schools, but today, the exclusion of non-white students in such academies or other types of schools is prohibited. De jure, no school in the United States can openly support segregation and deny enrolment based on race since it would run counter to equal protection clauses (“Constitution USA with Peter Sagal: Created equal,” 2013; The Heritage Foundation, n.d.). However, de facto, some public schools in racially diverse areas still enroll a very low percentage of African-American students despite listing integration and diversity as their core values. As for the recent events supporting this claim, less than one percent of all students accepted in Stuyvesant High School in New York in 2019 were Black (Shapiro, 2019). Such cases effectively demonstrate that segregation in elite public schools is not a thing of the past.
The question of how to reconcile equality versus equity in today’s public education presents an important issue since the requirements to treat every student equally and ensure that every child has everything to achieve success are quite dissimilar and even incompatible in some circumstances. I am sure that equality should be prioritized when it comes to the right to get educational services, whereas equity should come into play when students’ specific learning needs have been discovered. As is demonstrated in court cases, including Plyler v. Doe (1982), even illegal immigrants should enjoy equal access to public education since it maximizes their opportunity to contribute to society (“Constitution USA with Peter Sagal: Do the children of illegal immigrants have the right public education?” 2013). Equality in using the right to public education regardless of one’s citizenship status is supported by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, according to which it is inappropriate for a state to deny equal protection to any person (American Immigration Council, 2016; Darden, 2014; Mitchell, 2017).
Regarding equity, today’s public education system should support it to reduce the impact of students’ demographic and personal characteristics on their academic achievements. I agree with Sagal’s critique of the idea of total equality and believe that equality should be the key priority only when treating students with roughly the same learning needs (“Constitution USA with Peter Sagal: Equal protection part II,” 2013). Similar to the situation with equality, actions aimed at achieving equity should be focused on maximizing children’s chances to become effective contributors to society.
The U.S. Constitution does not say anything that would directly apply to the provision of extra supports for students that are different from peers. However, from the perspective of utility, public schools’ actions to achieve equity can lead to increases in the workforce and enable vulnerable children to elicit their full potential. At the same time, the willingness to give an equal amount of support to each student without considering their specific challenges results in urging some children to meet unrealistic performance standards, thus reducing their motivation to learn. With that in mind, the principle of equality is not enough to make the public education system work properly, whereas the balance between equality and equity can maximize student achievement.
American Immigration Council. (2016). Public education for immigrant students: Understanding Plyler v. Doe. Web.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
Constitution USA with Peter Sagal: Created equal. (2013). Web.
Constitution USA with Peter Sagal: Do the children of illegal immigrants have the right to public education?. (2013). Web.
Darden, E. C. (2014). School is open for immigrants. Kappan, September 2014, 76-77.
Mitchell, C. (2017). Can schools offer sanctuary? Education Week, 36(23), 12–13.
Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982).
The Heritage Foundation. (n.d.). The Heritage Guide to the Constitution. Web.
United States Courts. (n.d.). History – Brown v. Board of Education re-enactment. Web.
Shapiro, E. (2019). Only 7 black students got into Stuyvesant, N.Y.’s most selective high school, out of 895 spots. The New York Times. Web.