05/16/2014 04:22 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2014

In Pursuit of Brown

Lots of folks are reflecting on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

I first realized the true reach of Brown 12 years ago, when I was teaching constitutional literacy to high school students in Washington, D.C. Brown was the one case that every student in my class had heard of. These 11th and 12th graders, some of whom struggled with literacy and Roman numerals, had not learned much of anything about the Constitution itself, but they all knew that the Brown decision was about their ability to go to the same schools as white students.

My students' connection to Brown stuck with me as we celebrated the "Eve of the 50th Anniversary" later that year in law school. We listened to a debate about whether Brown had achieved its desired impact and whether the focus of the decision, desegregating schools, was really the best way to remedy the underlying issue of unequal educational opportunity.

That debate has also stuck with me, and I think it is still going on today, though not so directly. There are many who talk about Brown and segregation today as if the goal itself, the ultimate goal, then and now, is desegregation and integration. Their questions therefore tend to focus on whether schools are more or less segregated and whether current reform efforts are moving us toward or away from that goal.

But I think those questions are based on a misunderstanding of the point of Brown. In 1954 segregation was a barrier to students realizing their full potential, academically and socially. The underlying issue in the case, however, was about access to equal educational opportunity itself.

With a sharper focus, I think the question we should wrestle with today then becomes whether integration is necessary to achieve educational equity. Should we give up on integration along racial or socioeconomic lines in pursuit of improving academic achievement across the board?

More specifically, do high-performing, "no excuses" charter schools -- like KIPP, YES Prep, and Aspire -- prove that integration is unnecessary? These schools serve almost exclusively minority students with the aim of getting them all through college and have been significantly more successful in achieving that goal than traditional district public schools serving the same populations. They operate on the principle that academic success will transform their students' futures well beyond their time in the public education system.

And I get it. If so many things -- from the job you have to whether you end up in prison to where you decide to live -- are heavily correlated with education quality, then why not just focus on providing a great education to every child as the true lever for achieving a truly integrated and diverse society? We certainly haven't achieved integration in other sectors of society, like health care and housing, so why try to engineer diversity solely in our education system?

Yet this logic overlooks the immediate value of integration: the enrichment gained through education in a diverse environment. Even if we can give students the promise of opportunity later through a great education, we may be shortchanging them today on the enrichment gained through education in a diverse environment.

Perhaps the best path forward is to modernize integration efforts in a way that reflects the changing demographics of our most underserved populations. Today family income level is more predictive of a child's academic success than any other demographic factor. That's not to say we should give up on race (though the Supreme Court now seems to believe we should) but that we can honor the principles of Brown by ensuring that our schools do not allow a student's socioeconomic status to determine their educational destiny.

Ultimately, I do believe diversity in and of itself is valuable -- and yet I also know that it's not enough.

There are real and persistent barriers to educational opportunity, like unequal access to great teachers, a lack of quality school options, and a lack of accountability for systems that do not meet student needs. Fully realizing the vision of Brown requires us to put the needs of students ahead of all others and ensure that they all have an equal chance to succeed and participate as citizens.