70 years after Brown vs. Board, the Linda Browns of today can still be denied access

Available to All has released a new study called The Broken Promise of Brown v Board of Ed A 50-State Report on Legal Discrimination in Public School Admissions. This May will mark the 70th anniversary of Brown vs. Board, the landmark United States Supreme Court case which struck down segregating schools by race.

Linda Brown, whose family was among the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education

Many decades later, all is not well:

Seven decades after Brown, low-income children—many of them children of color—are still systematically excluded from the very best public schools. The brutal truth is this: In 2024, Linda Brown wouldnʼt be turned away from a coveted public school because of her race, but itʼs likely she would still be turned away. And itʼs all perfectly legal.

The study details how district boundaries deny opportunities to attend high demand public schools, and the relative strengths and (mostly) weaknesses of district open enrollment in all 50 states. The state of district open enrollment is not pretty, and amazingly many public magnet schools seem even worse:

Believe it or not, many coveted magnet schools give enrollment preferences to wealthy families, trying to lure them away from their high-quality zoned schools. It is one of the great ironies of public education that magnet schools, created to reduce segregation and increase opportunities for low-income children of color, often now intentionally put those same children at a disadvantage. Linda Brown, in other words, might be legally turned away from a public school in 2024 because her family doesnʼt make enough money.

The study contains a how-to manual for improving open enrollment laws in the states- and there is a huge amount of room for improvement even in what we think of as relatively open enrollment friendly states. Many states for example still grant by statute a veto over to open-enrollment transfers to resident districts as if students were feudal serfs.

The study is well worth your time to examine, and I will only add that the incentives faced by districts are probably at least as important as the laws governing them. As Clayton Christensen noted, organizations cannot disrupt themselves, so laws allowing educators to open new private and public schools can create incentives for high-demand district schools to lower their drawbridges.

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BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of NextSteps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.

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