In Brown's Wake: Legacies of America's Educational Landmark.

AuthorSalomone, Rosemary C.
PositionBook review

In Brown's Wake: Legacies of America's Educational Landmark




In recent years, economic forces of global magnitude have placed the substance and value of education in the national spotlight. With jobs for college graduates in short supply, political pundits and news commentators have placed different estimates on the worth of a college degree and the continued utility of the liberal arts. (1) Economists tie specific educational factors to future income. A high school diploma, we are told, can translate into an additional $300,000 in lifetime salary. (2) A highly effective kindergarten teacher likewise carries a value-added benefit of $320,000, the additional income that a classroom of today's students may earn over the course of their collective careers. (3) This frenzy over outcomes has heightened public fears and influenced attitudes and behavior. Educated parents rush to enroll their preschoolers in Chinese immersion programs to enhance future career options. As the documentary film Waiting for "Superman" dramatically portrays, poor and working class parents agonize over lotteries that may or may not offer their children admission to academically challenging charter schools, run by private organizations with public funds. (4)

Current federal and state policy initiatives, along with local practices, both mirror and energize this bottom-line mentality. States feverishly compete for federal funds that used to be allocated according to student need, buying into a strict regime of testing, standards, and accountability as they "race to the top." (5) The federal Secretary of Education assures us that "[i]nvesting in this new kind of education will sustain the country's economy" and will even prevent a recurrence of the present economic crisis. (6) Local school officials use all of the tools in their power to raise standardized test scores, the talisman of academic success. Parents worry that their children will be left behind. Teachers worry that their jobs are on the line.

To be sure, no one would deny the connection between education and economic success or the value of quality schooling. The fact that education is critical to the individual and to the nation is irrefutable. Holding schools accountable for student learning is unquestionable. Yet, listening to the constant drumbeat of quantitative outcomes and productivity, one senses that schooling has taken a definitive turn from the distant and not-so-distant past. Lost in this narrative is a concern for developing responsible citizens (the goal of early school reformers) and for providing equal opportunities based on individual student differences (the goal of modern-day civil rights activists).

For common-school crusaders a century and a half ago, the purpose of mass compulsory schooling was political. Facing the challenges of nationalization, industrialization, and immigration in a relatively young republic, they believed that education should impart the understandings and principles necessary for democratic citizenship. (7) Though today's challenges have shifted to globalization and post-industrialization, we are now witnessing another wave of mass migration, while schools still play a crucial role in preparing an even more religiously and racially diverse group of students for democratic participation.

In the mid-twentieth century, the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education (8) laid the foundation for broadening the mission of schools; the Court's goals moved beyond political interests to include a child-centered social view where equal educational opportunity, and the government's obligation to provide it, became the national mantra. As the federal government became increasingly involved in education policy, however, a backlash began to mobilize. This was prompted in part by glaring achievement gaps between white and racial-minority students, by opposition to court-ordered busing to achieve racial integration, and by controversies over bilingual classes and mainstreaming of children with disabilities. (9) Those concerns, heightened by fears of growing competition from across the globe, carried education to the present day when testing and accountability are the rallying cries for reform. In today's education discourse, the political and social purposes of schooling appear largely eclipsed by seemingly more pressing economic interests aimed at creating human capital to compete in a global economy. (10)

Set against these ongoing developments, Martha Minow's new book, In Brown's Wake, (11) is a timely and sobering reminder that education is not simply about the global marketplace. The book addresses Brown's impact on education rights across a wide range of student differences and group identities and touches on themes implicitly related to the purposes of schooling. In this Review, I use the framework of Brown's legacy to examine more explicitly those purposes. In doing so, I both widen Minow's lens and, at the same time, narrow it. On the first count, I situate Brown more definitively in the broad historical evolution of the common school. On the second, I look more critically at the federal government's growing control and oversight of a system initially designed to preserve state and local autonomy over schooling. I survey historic moments, from mid-nineteenth-century interests in nation building, to mid- to late-twentieth-century concerns with equalizing opportunities beyond individual differences, to current economic and global pressures. I begin with the common school's early history and then move on to Brown's dramatic impact on the federal role in education, the apparent retreat from equal educational opportunity, the current accountability and testing movement, and the implications for American schooling.

Guided in part by initiatives announced subsequent to the publication of In Brown's Wake, I maintain that today's productivity agenda fails short in fulfilling Brown's dual promise: (1) to break down barriers that impede equal opportunity (a well-developed theme of the book) and (2)to preserve democratic government and the nation's political standing as a world leader (a point that the literature has heretofore underaddressed). With a less sanguine view than Minow's on equality's enduring force, I conclude that we risk sacrificing one Brown legacy for another. While abandoning equal opportunity as an overarching principle, we are moving toward a more assertive federal role with a one-size-fits-all view of schooling that, in reality, undercuts post-Brown guarantees to an appropriate and meaningful education and may, in the end, more deeply divide students by race and social class.


    For more than a half-century, scholars from a mix of disciplines have dissected the Court's decision in Brown. What did equality mean as the Justices saw it then? What has it come to mean over the years? (12) Martha Minow now adds to that vast store of scholarship, providing a thoroughly researched and panoramic view of the ways in which the decision has influenced education law and policy across indices of race, national origin, wealth, disability, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. A leading legal academic known for her foundational work in feminist jurisprudence and current dean of the Harvard Law School, she has spent the past three decades both as an advocate for equality-based school reforms and as a scholar mining the depths of Brown's equality mandate across the educational terrain. (13)

    The book explores a number of themes, including the tension between separation and integration, the nuances of sameness and difference, the utility and limits of social science evidence, the federal role in education, the equity arguments supporting parental choice broadly conceived, and Brown's influence on the law of foreign countries. Minow walks us through the pre-and post-Brown landscape, introducing us to key political and legal actors and the equally bold, but unsung, plaintiffs who transformed education in the mold of equality. Along the way, we meet activists, like W.E.B. DuBois, who strove tirelessly to upend Jim Crow laws in the South. We also encounter the efforts of lawyers like Charles Hamilton Houston, former dean of Howard Law School, who along with Justice Thurgood Marshall helped design and implement the legal strategy that, case by case, culminated in the Brown decision. (14)

    We come upon plaintiffs like Kinney Kinmon Lau-a young boy born in Hong Kong whose lawsuit against the San Francisco school system dramatically influenced federal law and education programming on behalf of English language learners. (15) We also meet federal judges like J. Skelly Wright, whose decision striking down ability-tracking in the District of Columbia schools16 inspired subsequent litigation (17) and legislation (18) and hastened the end of the exclusion of children with disabilities from mainstream schooling. (19) We encounter distinguished scholars and dedicated advocates like Michael McConnell who, building on the equality norm from prior case law, tenaciously worked at laying the constitutional groundwork for extending Brown's legacy to the expressive rights of religious students in public schools and to the allocation of government funds to families whose children attend religious schools. (20)

    Dean Minow goes further into two areas typically overlooked in the commentary on equality in general and Brown in particular. Her discussion on the rights of American Indian and Native Hawai'ian students is especially insightful. The checkered history of educational policies for both groups...

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