Still in the grip of a troubled history

28th May 2004 at 01:00

Stephen Phillips concludes his report on the impact of outlawing racial segregation, 50 years on

Fifty years after the Supreme Court ordered the racial desegregation of US schools, education authorities across America remain locked in legal battles to secure equal opportunities for blacks students.

In a sad footnote to last week's anniversary of the landmark 1954 Brown v Board ruling - a crucial turning point on the road to desegregation in schools - lawyers representing the predominantly black South Carolina authority pleaded this week for urgent financial support to put schools there on an equal footing with their wealthier, mostly white counterparts.

It was in South Carolina that parents of black students forced to attend an inferior school, Scott's Branch high, first challenged racial segregation.

The move resulted in the 1954 ruling and served as an important catalyst for the civil rights movement.

The case of Abbeville County School District et al v the State of South Carolina - popularly known as "today's Brown v Board" - is being led by Richard Riley, who served twice as governor of South Carolina and was education secretary during the presidency of Bill Clinton. The case has now dragged on for 11 years.

Similar cases have now been launched in some 30 other states, said Mr Riley, the architect of the Democrats' standards-based school reforms during the 1990s.

Today, Scott's Branch high has been transformed from a one-room school-house into a roomy, modern campus. But like many other schools in the 30 other education authorities represented in the South Carolina lawsuit, it still remains woefully under-resourced, lags behind in academic achievement and serves mostly poor, black students.

"Race and poverty are the same thing in these schools," said lawyer Stephen Morrison, who is also fighting the case.

"On average, 88 per cent of students are from ethnic minorities, and 86 per cent of students are below the poverty line."

These students are taught by South Carolina's lowest-paid and least experienced teachers. They also have the highest staff turnover and the worst-equipped classrooms, said Mr Morrison.

Mr Riley said these teachers serve students whose parents "were themselves systematically under-educated and are unable to offer educational strength at home". It is precisely in these schools that strong teachers are needed most, he added.

The plight of these pupils is symptomatic of the inequalities at work in the US school funding system, which relies heavily on local property taxes to bridge shortfalls in public funding. This method leads to a bias in favour of schools in areas where property prices are higher.

Such disparities in funding have helped to fuel a resegregation in schools as wealthier white people move into the communities with well-heeled schools, further widening the distance between them and the neighbouring areas of relative poverty.

Since the demise of "bussing" programmes, which encouraged cultural diversity by transporting pupils to outlying schools, many believe that "adequacy" lawsuits such as Abbeville now represent the best hope of securing a decent education for ethnic minorities by calling on state authorities to subsidise poor schools.

"Being properly funded - that's what this lawsuit's about," said Ken Mayne, headteacher of Scott's Branch high.

President George W Bush has vowed to root out the "bigotry of low expectations" among ethnic minority groups under the No Child Left Behind Act. The new law holds schools accountable for all students' performance, including those who have been neglected in the past.

But the legislation is opposed by many teachers, who believe the new regime sets unrealistic goals and fails to provide the funding needed to make improvements.

Mr Morrison believes policy-makers now face a stark choice.

"If children are not prepared educationally, they can't be productive citizens," he said.

"Sixty-five per cent of drop-outs go on welfare, and 35 per cent are incarcerated. If you fail to invest through their school years, you will invest in prisons and welfare later on."

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