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Decades after Brown, some schools still less equal than others, critics say

This 1964 phoshows LindBrown Smith front Sumner School TopekKansas. The public school refused admit Brown 1951 when she was 9

This 1964 photo shows Linda Brown Smith in front of the Sumner School in Topeka, Kansas. The public school refused to admit Brown in 1951, when she was 9 years old, because she is black. After the resulting lawsuit — Brown v. Board of Education — the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1954, overruled the "separate but equal" clause and mandated that schools nationwide must be desegregated. | Associated Press

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Updated: May 17, 2014 6:21PM

On May 17, 1954, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate education systems were inherently unequal.

But 60 years later, a funding system based on property taxes ensures that Illinois schools remain so, say civil rights and education groups.

The Brown case was the result of a lawsuit brought by the NAACP. It was meant to end separate — and inferior — schools for black students.

But critics of Illinois’ school funding point to Chicago Public Schools as proof that the state still has problems with inequality among and within school districts.

“Funding is the new manipulation to deny equal protection under the law. They rationalize resource discrimination as a right,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson of Rainbow PUSH.

“Look at Harper High in Englewood, then Neuqua Valley High in Naperville,” he said. “Or Harper and Walter Payton College Prep. The suburban and North Side schools teach pre-college courses, high math, foreign languages; the other teaches at a standard far below that.”

Remedy could be on the horizon in the School Funding Reform Act of 2014, introduced last month and expected to come up for a vote in the Illinois Senate next week, say the groups, who plan commemorative events on Saturday — at Operation PUSH, and at an anti-CPS rally.

Senate Bill 16, sponsored by Sen. Andrew Manar (D-Bunker Hill), would enact a weighting system to take into account factors such as low-income, English-as-second- language and special education populations in funding school districts.

Thus, challenged urban and rural districts would garner more funding than wealthier ones.

“At the end of the day, we’re either serious about closing the education gap, or we’re not,” said Robin Steans, executive director of the education reform group Advance Illinois.

“At this 60th anniversary, we’re reminded there is no more critical foundation for anybody’s future than a good education. Senate Bill 16 is a serious and doable effort to drive state dollars to students most in need. It would be a tragedy if we do not pass it,” Steans said.

Activists said the state has dragged its feet on a 2008 lawsuit brought by the groups; they believe Illinois’ funding system violates the civil rights of black and Hispanic children.

“On the one hand, Brown v. Board of Ed clearly opened doors of opportunity for many of us, myself included,” said Andrea Zopp, an attorney and president of the Chicago Urban League.

“The sad part is we clearly have lost some ground,” said Zopp, who’s a member of the Chicago Board of Education. “Normally, with civil litigation like this, you would try to find a pathway to agreed resolution. The attorney general has been unable to do that. That’s disappointing.”

The class action suit, naming the state and the Illinois Board of Education, seeks to declare the funding system unconstitutional, claiming it violates the right to “high-quality educational institutions” guaranteed under the Illinois Constitution’s education article.

“We feel strongly that we have enough evidence to convince both a court of law and a court of public opinion,” said Lisa Scruggs, lead attorney on the suit handled pro bono by legal powerhouse Jenner & Block. “We filed this lawsuit in 2008, and it is now 2014. There have been a number of points where we’ve wanted to move more quickly and the other side hasn’t.”

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, however, denies any stalling.

“This issue has been litigated numerous times,” said Madigan spokeswoman Maura Possley. “The Illinois Supreme Court has clearly ruled that changes in state education funding have to originate in the legislature.”

PUSH will commemorate the anniversary at its Saturday morning forum, and a rally will be held at the shuttered Pope Elementary School, 1852 S. Albany.

“Education is still as separate and unequal as ever,” said Jitu Brown, education organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, and national director with the Journey for Justice Alliance, made up of groups nationwide.

On Wednesday, the Alliance led a rally on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, then filed civil rights complaints with the U.S. Justice Department and U.S. Department of Education over the closing of public schools and promulgation of charters in Chicago, Newark and New Orleans.

“School privatization is the new Jim Crow. Forcing failed education experiments down the throats of black and brown families is unacceptable,” charged Brown.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett agreed equal education remains a civil rights issue, but disagreed with the bleak assessment of Chicago’s public schools.

“In Chicago, our children are fortunate to have talented teachers, strong principals, and communities who are invested in their success,” Byrd-Bennett said. “As a result, Chicago’s students have achieved record rates of high school graduation, college enrollment and persistence and the trends and lead indicators for the future are promising.”

But Jackson and others said CPS has far to go to remedy inequities.

“They’re getting ready to build a $60 million school on the North Side named after the president, when there are 140 schools that don’t have a library, 120 of which are south of North Avenue,” said Jackson. “No library would be unimaginable for many North Side schools.”


Twitter: @Maudlyne

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