When the Supreme Court made its landmark ruling in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, declaring racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd, was 7 years old.
Sixty-five years later, much has changed for the longtime congressman, the chair of the House Education and Labor Committee. And yet one thing that remains true is the reality of segregation, Scott told about 500 educators Tuesday at the Virginia is for All Learners Education Equity Summer Institute held at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.
Citing a 2016 study and civil rights data from the Department of Education, Scott said public schools are more segregated today by race and class than in the 1960s, and that has tripled since the 1980s.
This segregation is perpetrated by funding schools through real estate taxes, Scott said. Historical wealth gaps between black and white Americans, partially created by unequal access to education, have led to a resource gap between majority-black and majority-white schools, amounting to a difference of $23 billion, according to a report from education advocacy group EdBuild.
The funding structure of public schools “virtually guarantees there will be unequal education,” Scott said.
“If you deny people ... an equal access [to] education, you have relegated them to a second-class life,” Scott said. “Segregation doesn’t just isolate people, it isolates opportunities.”
Scott said integration mandates such as busing worked in the past, but the abandonment of those policies in the 1980s and recent efforts to undo civil rights policy by the Trump administration have increased the reality of school segregation.
Today, students of color are “underfunded and over-disciplined,” he said, referencing a Department of Education report that black students are four times more likely than white students to be punished with out-of-school suspensions.
In 2015, Scott co-authored the Every Student Succeeds Act, shepherding it through the House of Representatives. The bipartisan education bill included accountability requirements for schools to come up with plans to reduce inequities including disproportionate suspension rates for black students as part of their participation in Title I, which allocates federal funding for more than 50% of public schools based on their low-income populations.
However, Scott said under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration has walked back these regulations and not enforced civil rights protections, including narrowing the scope of what complaints her department will investigate, a move heavily criticized by civil rights advocates. Scott said Virginia will need to step up and ensure compliance on its own.
He also touted legislation his committee has worked on, including the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, which aims to weaken the school-to-prison pipeline and was signed by President Donald Trump.
Scott is also trying to advance two bills, the Equity and Inclusion Enforcement Act, which would restore the private right of action to individuals to file lawsuits regarding discriminatory education policy, and the Strength in Diversity Act, which would codify an Obama-era program offering grants that the Trump administration has canceled to localities trying to fund voluntary school desegregation plans.
Ultimately, Scott said funding is the most important tool to achieving education equity, and occurs only when local, state and federal policymakers work together, as many did after the Brown decision.
“Low-income, at-risk students actually need more funding, not less,” he said. “Equal isn’t enough.”