The Promise of Brown Not Yet Fulfilled

By Stevon Cook

“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”
-Chief Justice Earl Warren, May 17 1954

The 60th Anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which overturned legal segregation in public education, inspires contemplation. It is a time to reflect on our past efforts to integrate and our considerations for the future. Significant inequalities in school quality and student achievement along racial and socioeconomic lines persist in America even today. Research Fellow Richard Rothstein recently wrote an article speaking to what he classifies as a “re-segregation” of schools. He argues that American schools have made some improvements since Brown, but we have increasingly created schools that are more racially and economically isolated today than they were thirty years ago.[1]

As an African American male who was raised in a low-income community, is a product of San Francisco public schools, and is still engaged in the work of strengthening our schools, I feel a strong personal connection to this anniversary. I understand that outcomes like mine were only possible because of the groundwork laid by those who fought for this ruling. The high school I attended is named after Thurgood Marshall, who served as lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the Brown case. Marshall went on to become the first African American member of the Supreme Court. The Brown decision and those who fought for it have had an impact on me from an early age, and I carry that tradition close as I run for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Education.

San Francisco has a long history of integration efforts. This anniversary may also serve as an opportunity for our city to review and reflect on that history as we work toward the ideals set forth in the Brown decision. Here is a brief overview of San Francisco’s history of integration in education:

1954Brown v. Board of Education decision:  The decision overturns the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling and removes the legal basis for “separate but equal” segregated schools.

1966—San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is sued over stalled desegregation:  Twelve years after the Brown decision, the San Francisco branch of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (SF NAACP) launches a lawsuit against San Francisco Board of Education in an effort to force the district to desegregate its schools.

1978SF NAACP v. SFUSD:  The SF NAACP and a group of black families launch a class action suit against the school district, the board members, superintendent and State of California claiming that school district assignment policy had the intent of racially segregating students.

1982—Federal consent decree:  Born out of a legal settlement between the SF NAACP and SFUSD, the consent decree puts into place guidelines for school integration. The guidelines stipulate that no racial or ethnic group should exceed 45% of the student body at any public school or 40% at any alternative school. Further, the racial and ethnic composition of each school’s staff members should reflect the district-wide racial and ethnic composition.

1992—Demographic shifts in the student population:  The portion of Chinese-American students rises from 19.5% of the student body in 1983 to 24% by 1992. This makes Chinese-Americans the largest ethnic group in San Francisco public schools.  As the population of Latino and Asian American students grows, the portions of white and black students decline.  This affected school admissions requirements.  For example, at Lowell High School, Chinese-American students need a significantly higher placement score than white, black, and Latino students to gain entry.

1995Ho v. SFUSD:  The parents of three children of Chinese ancestry, on behalf of all children of Chinese descent of school age who are current residents of San Francisco and who are eligible to attend the public schools of the San Francisco Unified School District, file a class-action lawsuit against the San Francisco Unified School District and state defendants claiming that the racial caps violate 14th Amendments Equal Protection Clause. A Federal district court rules in favor of protecting the policies laid out in the consent decree

1999—The end of racial quotas:  Settlement negotiations from Ho v. SFUSD lead to the creation of a new student-assignment plan that eliminates race and ethnicity as factors in determining student placement.  SFUSD forms the Consent Decree Advisory Committee to oversee racial and ethnic diversity in schools.  The new agreement leads to a termination date for the consent decree of December 31, 2002

2005—The end of federal oversight of the SFUSD student assignment process:  District Judge Alsup decides that the diversity index lottery system that replaces the racial quota system had not and would not produce the benefit of diversity or racial integration.  The court further notes that initiatives to close the achievement gap would continue without the consent decree.  Judge Aslup opines that the parties used the supremacy of the decree to override opposition from parents, teachers and other interests not represented in the case.  The case closes, and Judge Alsup refuses the parties’ request to extend the consent decree for eighteen months.

Laws requiring that school districts implement race conscious student assignment processes have been repealed not only in San Francisco, but in other cities such as Boston,[2] Seattle, and Louisville as well.[3] At the time of the Brown decision, the conversation centered on challenging policies that were overtly racist, separatist, and based in an ideology of black inferiority. As a nation, our conversations are no longer in the same place, but we still see systemic challenges that adversely affect people within certain communities.

In San Francisco, we still have a number of lessons to learn from the consent decree. The settlement did not lead to the end of the achievement gap, but that does not mean that the policy was a failure. It highlights the fact that racial integration alone will fall short in addressing the larger societal issues that influence achievement.

Economic and cultural forces in San Francisco today present unique challenges for our schools and unique opportunities for us to create policies that advance public education. Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution rated San Francisco as having the highest income inequality in the country,[4] there are more adults with dogs than children,[5] and middle to high income families with children are increasing opting out of public schools.

Even with these factors at play it is evident that we do not suffer from a lack of ideas, research, or resources.  San Francisco needs the leadership and the political will to create the investments that will sustain a strategy for engaging not only its schools, but also their surrounding communities. We need a durable long-term strategy that is focused on improving outcomes for our children.

As we consider this anniversary and the persistence of our opportunity gap, I plan to work on the following priorities if I am elected to the Board:

Investing in High Quality Early Childhood Education: San Francisco has a pre-school system that is difficult for parents to navigate and that serves too few of our students from low-income households. We need to engage our low-income families with children under the age of three. We must share information and build relationships between schools and parents with the goal of getting more people to enroll their children in pre-school. We need to do a better job of informing families about the enrollment process and tying school performance to parent surveys about how they felt about their experience with the process.

 Increasing Parental Engagement: The influence of parents on student achievement is well documented. We not only need to have an active parent community that takes on meaningful leadership roles within their schools, but schools should be a place where low-income families can receive services if necessary. We need to empower and train parents at the school site to recruit other parents to the school’s community.

Improving Teacher Retention: We lose 50 percent of our teachers in their first five years of service. Our attrition rates are greatest at schools with higher concentrations of students living in poverty. We need to put our early educators in a better position to grow professionally and give them meaningful access to experienced educators who can serve as mentors. In addition, they need frequent access to professional development and training to help them improve their practice.

 Providing Sufficient Access to Socio-emotional Care Providers: Our students’ social conditions can present additional barriers to learning that teachers alone are not sufficiently trained for or capable of addressing. For these student populations, we need to hire social workers, wellness coordinators, nurses, and therapists to support students in ways in which teachers alone cannot.

 Ensuring Postsecondary Success: There are critical academic junctures at the every phase of a student’s time from Pre-K through 12th grade. We should target measurable goals that drive postsecondary success such as enrollment in pre-school, 3rd grade literacy, 8th grade math proficiency, and meaningful exposure to college and career programs in high school. Our schools need access to partners that specialize in these areas to help drive success in these areas. These partners need to be highly involved and offer students sufficient and sustainable resources.

 As I seek to take on this work, I remind myself that we are trying to interrupt larger societal issues and institutional forces that will not neatly conform to a five-point plan over the course of one political term. What makes our schools so dynamic is that they are run by and for the benefit of people. Everyone brings something to the work that may harm or enhance our schools’ ability to drive any one particular outcome. I am pursuing a seat on the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education with a nuanced understanding of the student experience and the demands of educators doing the work. I still believe that with the right vision and priorities San Francisco can transform its schools into high performing and empowering spaces where learning, critical thinking, self-advocacy, and innovation happens in every classroom.

This work is the next iteration of Brown, where we integrate San Francisco’s unique resources with a deep understanding of the community context in which our schools operate. There is no greater effort worthy of pursuing. When we get it right in San Francisco we will realize the promise of quality education for all carried within the Brown v. Board of Education decision for an entire generation of young people.

Stevon Cook is a candidate for the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education and holds a senior position with a San Francisco education nonprofit. Connect with him on Twitter: @StevonCook.


[1] Rothstein, Richard.  “Brown v. Board at 60:  Why Have we Been so Disappointed?  What Have we Learned?”  Economic Policy Institute Report.  April 17, 2004. < >

[2] Kilkenny, Allison.  “As Boston Ends Desegregation Busing, Students Face New Inequities.”  The Nation.  April 8, 2013 <>.

[3] Bowermaster, David and Linda Shaw.  “High Courts Reject School Integration Plans.”  The Seattle Times.  June 28, 2007.  <>.

[4] Berube, Alan.  “All Cities are Not Created Unequal.”  Brookings Institution. February 20, 2014.  <>

[5] May, Meredith.  “S.F.’s Best Friends.”  SFGate.  June 17, 2007.  <>