When black students marched nervously to their new classrooms during the first days of integrated public schools in the 1950s, the constitutional imperative of Brown v. Board of Education was fully behind them. But six decades on, public schools across the country seem to be marching backwards, and the Trump administration looks poised to claw them further back to the days of Jim Crow.
Even before Trump took office, the nation’s schools were backsliding toward resegregation, despite, or even because, of the formal abolition of segregation through the courts. Last year, an audit by the Government Accountability Office on educational segregation patterns revealed dramatic growth in segregated schools nationwide—defined as having three-quarters of their students in poverty and of black and Latino descent—since 2000, with racial polarization of schools rising under both Bush and Obama from 9 percent to 16 percent of schools in 2014.
The resegregation trends spurred some progressive lawmakers to seek to reverse the erosion of Brown through the Equity and Inclusion Enforcement Act (EIEA). Recently reintroduced by Representatives John Conyers of Michigan and Bobby Scott of Virginia, the legislation would modify the Civil Rights Act to enable communities to resist resegregation in the same arena where Brown was won: the courtroom. The bill would create a private right of action for individual families to take schools and policymakers to court over funding decisions that result in discrimination by race, ethnicity, or national origin—particularly in “denial or exclusion of services; decreased, poor, or low quality services; unsafe services; and the denial of the opportunity to participate as a member of a planning or advisory body.” The bill would also establish civil-rights monitors to “ensure that every school has at least one employee to specifically carry out the responsibilities of the law,” backed by a special position in the Education Department “to coordinate and promote Title VI enforcement of equity and inclusion in education.”
Altogether, the proposal would counter a 2001 Supreme Court ruling, Alexander v. Sandoval, that effectively stripped citizens of their right to bring civil suits against local funding policies that inflicted “disparate impact” based on race or ethnicity. The decision overturned longstanding equity-based statutes and left communities locked out of essential legal recourse against discrimination in school budgeting, transportation policy, and environmental regulations.