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Education Law

Racial Segregation

The U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 349 U.S. 294, 75 S. Ct. 753, 99 L. Ed. 1083, held unconstitutional the deliberate segregation of schools by law on account of race. Brown overruled the 1896 case of PLESSY V. FERGUSON, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, in which the Court had recognized as valid the separation of black and white school children. The principles enunciated in Brown provided the foundation for new federal laws that expand access to education and other public services to previously unserved populations, such as disabled students and adults.

In Brown, four separate cases—from Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, and Virginia—were consolidated for argument before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court framed the issue before it as being whether "segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other tangible factors may be equal, deprives the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunity." The Court answered in the affirmative, holding that the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause forbids state-imposed segregation of races in public schools, and stating, "In the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

The Court further stated, "[education] … is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms"—not a privilege that is granted to some and denied others. This statement of public policy opened the public schools to minorities and to other populations who previously had been denied access. For example, advocates for better access to schools for disabled students seized upon this language to press Congress into passing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975 (Pub. L. 94-142, Nov. 29, 1975, 89 Stat. 773 [20 U.S.C.A. §§ 1232, 1400 et seq.]).

Numerous lawsuits have alleged violation of Brown since 1954. Although the efforts to desegregate the schools have not been uniformly successful, de jure segregation in public schools—the practice addressed specifically in Brown—does not exist in the United States today. However, the goal of creating an integrated public-school system has not been achieved. Most minority children still attend schools where they are the majority of students, or where their numbers are disproportionately high, as compared to the area population. The location of public housing, middle-class flight from inner-city areas, economic deprivation of minorities, and a host of other variables have frustrated legislative and judicial efforts to fully integrate public schools.

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