AuthorJeffrey Wilson

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One of the most important rights Americans have is the right to a free public education. No child in the United States, whether native- or foreign-born, can be denied access to a public school for elementary and secondary education. While in theory this means that everyone is entitled to the same educational experience, in fact that is not necessarily the case. Public schools can vary dramatically from community to community simply because some districts have more money to spend on education than others.

For years, segregation of black and white students was quite common. In some places, it was common because local and state laws mandated segregation in one form or another. In other places it was common because neighborhoods were segregated (often by choice) and students went to the closest schools. From the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, segregated schools were protected by the concept of "separate but equal," upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896. Separate but equal was overturned in 1954 in the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision, but segregation in the schools continued. In the 1960s and 1970s, efforts were made to desegregate schools across the country. Many of these efforts succeeded, but many failed. A number of desegregation efforts, begun with the best of intentions, turned out to be more divisive than inclusive.

Desegregation is one of the most complex issues educators and parents face. In the 1950s, desegregation was about blacks and whites. When people used the word "minority," they meant blacks. As of 2002, the entire concept of minorities and diversity has shifted. Minorities can include blacks, Central and South Americans, Southeast Asians (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian), Arabs, and a host of others. This sort of multiple ethnicity existed in large cities for decades, but in the 21st century people are more mobile and even small communities can have a dozen or more ethnic minorities. Consequently, communities cannot merely take a "one size fits all" approach. Finding the right approach to desegregation, or rather, to encouraging diversity in the schools, is an ongoing challenge to school districts across the country.

Before Desegregation

Education was not always the universally accepted right that it is today in the United States. Although some communities did make education a priority,

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the United States was primarily an agricultural society until the twentieth century. Children might learn to work the land or be apprenticed to a tradesman after having only a few years of formal schooling. Many children had no formal education. Slave children had only as much education as their masters allowed or tolerated; most slave owners did not encourage their slaves even to learn to learn to read or write.

The Fourteenth Amendment

The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified shortly after the end of the Civil War prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude. But it did not specifically grant citizenship to freed slaves, and Southern states took advantage of this omission. Congress redressed the balance with the Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1868. The amendment stated that all citizens, whether by birth or by naturalization, were guaranteed equal protection under the law, and called for Federal intervention if states failed to comply. Former Confederate states that wished to rejoin the United States were required to sign the Fourteenth Amendment before being readmitted.

What the Fourteenth Amendment did not do was guarantee equal rights. Southern states used the "separate but equal" argument, which allowed them to keep blacks and whites separate as long as they did not deprive them of basic legal rights. Eventually, this arrangement led to a series of discouraging developments that relegated blacks in the South to inferior status.

Plessy v Ferguson

One of the factors affected by while Southern unwillingness to recognize blacks as equals was public transportation. In 1890 the General Assembly of Louisiana passed a law requiring railroads to provide separate cars for whites and blacks, with...

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