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School Boards still have much work to do, 70 years after historic Brown v. Board of Education decision

School Boards still have much work to do, 70 years after historic Brown v. Board of Education decision

Seventy years ago this month, the Brown vs. Board of Education decision became a landmark decision in the civil rights movement. However, that decision did not come remotely close to solving the inherent problems of “separate but equal” schools. As two sitting school board members, we find ourselves reflecting on just how far we have – and haven’t – come in the decades that have followed that infamous ruling.

Now is the perfect time to reflect on decisions school board members like us make every day — those that seem mundane but crucial like approving budgets and hiring and evaluating the superintendent, and those that are framed as controversial, like approving curriculum, book banning, critical race theory, gender neutral restrooms, and parental rights.

It may seem like controversial culture war issues are a new phenomenon, but in reality they are simply a continuation of culture wars that have persisted for decades — a modern reawakening of oppressive ideology that ebbs and flows across the decades — sometimes more hidden and sometimes more explicit, like in this current moment.

Instead of avoiding these culture wars, school boards have a golden opportunity right now to bring about positive, systemic change by facing these issues head on and doing away with policies that reinforce inequality, racism and unacceptable student outcomes.

Following Brown vs. Board of Education, it was individual School boards across the country who passed policies that built upon redlined communities to create segregated school district boundaries that persist today. They developed school finance systems that provided greater resources to the wealthiest and typically the whitest part of our communities. And they approved teacher contracts that placed more experienced teachers disproportionately in wealthier and whiter schools. In that moment, school boards nationwide codified the inherent racism in our system even despite the court case that attempted to prevent it. This is the power of school boards.

Seventy years ago the Supreme Court overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy vs. Ferguson because schools for students of color were NOT equal. And yet today, we know gaps in achievement and opportunity persist. Students of color still disproportionately attend under-resourced schools. They’re more likely to be staffed by less experienced teachers. They’re provided less access to advanced courses. As a result, students of color are, on average, several grade levels behind their peers.

Far too many of these detrimental policies were passed by people who look like those famed all-white Topeka school board members. As a black man and white woman leading for racial equity in schools, we believe we need more diverse school boards that are representative of the communities they serve, AND we need white board members who co-lead efforts to dismantle systemic and institutional racism in our nation’s public schools.

On this 70th anniversary, you might find yourself wondering what you would have done if you had lived in Topeka in 1954. Surely you would have actively supported desegregation, right? One idea of how you might have acted can be found in your actions today. Do you know who your school board members are and who is running for school board if you have elections this year? Do you know what they stand for and if they are upholding or dismantling policies that perpetuate systemic racism?

After all, we are making tomorrow’s history today. As you vote in your next school board election, are you voting for someone who will ban books or ensure your libraries are full of stories told by diverse voices? Are you voting for someone who will respect and honor students in all their diverse brilliance, or someone who will pass policies that tell some students they aren’t welcome at school because of their gender identity or the color of their skin? When your grandchildren ask what you did to fight racism and increase equity in education during this time, what will you be able to say?

Community leaders have an obligation to recruit, support and encourage new ideas and new people from diverse backgrounds to participate in effecting systemic change in our schools. This must include who we recruit, elect, and retain to sit on our school boards. Time and time again, in our roles at School Board Partners, we see positive impact in communities where this is done.

Seventy years ago the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy vs. Ferguson that had been the law of the land for almost 50 years. Remnants from how that Supreme Court decision was implemented in tens of thousands of school districts lives on. We have to change that. It is school board members who passed those policies, and it is school board members who must change them. Let’s elect and empower the school board members who will do just that.


Ethan Ashley, who represents the school district that Ruby Bridges integrated, and Carrie Douglass are elected school board members and co-founders of School Board Partners, an organization that trains, supports, connects, and re-elects diverse anti-racist school board members across the country. They also are the authors of Empty Seats at Powerful Tables, The State of School Boards in America, a 2022 report that addresses how school boards can diversify and ultimately thrive in the 21st century.

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