64th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education: Ensuring Equity in Music Education


64th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education:
Ensuring Equity in Music Education


As the National Association for Music Education strives to advance music education by promoting the understanding and making of music by all, that goal will not be reached until our nation’s schools provide an equitable education for all students. We are now at the 64th anniversary of one of the landmark points in the ongoing work toward that educational equality: Brown vs. Board of Education, the momentous case in which the Supreme Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for Black and White students to be unconstitutional. 

For over 60 years, laws in the United States allowed racial segregation. This was underscored by Plessy vs. Ferguson, which held that separate facilities for races did not violate the 14th Amendment as long as these establishments were equal. Of course, they never were. NAACP Chief Counsel Thurgood Marshall argued that White school facilities were typically of higher quality than Black schools. Marshall, who himself once wished to attend law school at the University of Maryland, but couldn’t because they did not accept Blacks, maintained that the only justification for continuing to have separate schools was to keep people who were slaves “as near that stage as possible.”

As the Supreme Court stood in gridlock over a decision in 1953, momentum shifted when Earl Warren was confirmed as Chief Justice. A strong believer that segregation was unconstitutional, he recognized a unanimous decision was necessary to fend off the backlash of southern states. Rewriting his decision numerous times to accommodate all justices, Warren wrote that the issue was not about an equal opportunity to attend school, but to look at the ill-effects of segregation in public education and society. He went on further to write that separating students solely because of race generates a feeling of inferiority. Thus, separating education facilities are inherently unequal, and violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. 


Brown’s Legacy

The Brown decision did not immediately change the laws or desire of states to desegregate their schools. Ten years after the landmark decision, just one in eighty-five southern black students were taught in desegregated schools. And even more recently, the prevalence of “white flight” to suburbs, movement to private schools or academies (with corresponding lessening of support for public schools), and various legal tactics sometimes stymied progress toward integration or even led to re-segregation in many communities in the South and nationwide.

However, the decision formed the basis for legislative, administrative, and eventually social developments that began to chip away racist social structure and was one of the catalysts for the Civil Rights movement. This eventually led to President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act. Less than a year after enacting the Civil Rights Act, President Johnson enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) with today’s iteration being the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). These two historic laws have worked in tandem in responding to support desegregation. In order to receive ESEA dollars, which were a large investment in high poverty settings, a district had to be desegregated as defined under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Without the Civil Rights Act, ESEA would have been unable to withhold funds from segregated districts, and conversely, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act would have been less effective without ESEA funds with which to threaten districts. 

Have we honored the legacy of Brown?  If we are to take Justice Warren’s philosophy that generating inferiority establishes inequality, then true educational equality continues to be a work in progress.

The main findings from this year’s Civil Rights Data Collection show that Black students are more likely to be arrested at school than their peers — a racial disparity that appears to be widening.  Meanwhile, racial disparities in school discipline continue, even as districts across the country reduce their reliance on suspensions and expulsions.

This information comes as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos considers scrapping an Obama-era guidance document, released in 2014, that urged districts to reduce their reliance on exclusionary discipline. The guidance notified school leaders that disparate discipline rates, based on race or disability, could be the result of bias and therefore violate federal civil rights laws.

iStockphoto.com | kali9


Within music education, problems persist because many students are not receiving the well-rounded education required in Title IV, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. The National Endowment for the Arts revealed that only 28 percent of Black students surveyed received school-based arts education, and scored the lowest of all ethnicities on the most recent National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) Arts Assessment. Although Hispanic students narrowed the gap in the assessment, scores remain significantly lower than White students. This is only an example of how the lack of access to music education impacts students.

Furthermore, students who met the eligibility requirement of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) had significantly lower scores on the music portion of the arts NAEP than students who are ineligible for the NSLP, suggesting that there are significant barriers that prohibit low-income students from receiving music instruction. 

Scholars such as Carlos Abril and Kenneth Elpus documented that nearly two-thirds of music ensemble students were Caucasian and middle class, while only 15 percent were African American students. Related research found that only seven percent of music teacher licensure candidates were Caucasian and middle class, while only 15 percent were African American students. Related research found that only seven percent of music teacher licensure candidates were African American.

To this end, NAfME opposes deregulatory efforts or actions that affect the mission of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Such efforts work in opposition to the intent of both the Civil Rights Act as well as ESEA. Furthermore, NAfME strongly advocates that the Department add access and participation rates of well-rounded subjects, including music and the arts, to the data collection and reporting undertaken by the Office of Civil Rights, similar to the reporting of student access to school nurses and counselors. And finally, because laws and administrative actions don’t in themselves do all that’s needed to solve social problems, NAfME advocates that all music teachers look for ways to increase access for, and to invite participation by, all students.

Brown is a reminder that the best way to honor the monumental efforts of those who have strived for equality and equity in education is to persistently continue their work to achieve it. Music education advocates of this generation must do their part to ensure that every child receives a well-rounded education.

Tooshar Swain, Public Policy Advisor, May 23, 2018. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)