Brown v. Bush

By Wayne Au

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

illustration: MICHAEL DUFFY

In January, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige proclaimed that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is the “logical step after Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation.” With the 50th anniversary of Brown upon us, it’s not surprising that the Bush Administration would claim NCLB is a tool of racial justice.

Admittedly, both NCLB and the Brown decision are examples of dramatic shifts in federal education policy that reflect an increasing national concern for the educational inequality of their respective times. And both draw on a widespread public belief in the role that schools have in alleviating social inequality and maintaining the democratic ideal. And neither Brown, with its focus on the “separate but unequal” school system as the source of inequality, nor NCLB, with its dubious focus on the validity of standardized test scores, adequately addressed the deeper social and economic inequalities that schools reproduce in countless ways.

We’ve had five decades of education reform since the Brown decision, and we still stare down glaring race and class-based achievement gaps in public education. Too many schools still fail to adequately educate too many low-income children and children of color. Many people, out of desperation and exasperation, have lashed their hopes of educational equality to the rhetorical promise of accountability embedded in NCLB. This provides a toe-hold for the Bush Administration to claim NCLB as civil rights legislation and use the Brown decision as the poster child for federal education mandates.

The differences between the Brown decision and NCLB are significant. At a recent conference that examined the Brown decision, I was struck by the comments of Carl Grant, the highly respected chair of the department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Grant pointed out that one of the key differences between Brown and NCLB lies in the definition of “achievement.” He pointed out that “achievement” under NCLB has been narrowly reduced to test scores. To him, the hopes and dreams of the African-American community in relation to the Brown decision were ultimately about achievement in life—a much broader and more visionary definition.

And here’s where NCLB really falls flat: It fails to provide a vision of egalitarian social change. The Brown decision was born out of the struggle for racial equality and civil rights in this country. It was one part of a mass movement for social justice built by collective community action and local organizing efforts. Questions about its success aside, Brown was grounded in a context of attempting to improve conditions for African Americans and others in this country in the spirit of socio-economic equality.

The Bush administration can make no such claims. NCLB is not a policy with roots in any broader movement for social justice. There are really only two significant groups that fully support it: the political apparatus of the Bush Administration—which feeds its official line on down through state, district, and school policies; and the business community, like Bush’s long-time family friends the McGraws (of McGraw-Hill publishing), who salivate at the billions of federal dollars being poured into the high-stakes testing and test-preparation industries.

Also, unlike the Brown decision’s intention to improve education for African-American students, NCLB is structured in ways that will hurt poor students and students of color. Its over-reliance on high-stakes testing ignores educational research that has found those tests to be inaccurate assessments of student learning in general, and inaccurate, in particular, when it comes to measuring the achievement of non-white and low-income students. NCLB’s sanctions for low-performing schools serve to further impoverish already poor schools by forcing them to divert district dollars out of the classroom and put them into transportation and tutoring. Meanwhile NCLB threatens whole-school restructuring under the guidance of private companies if schools can’t meet their Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) goals in high-stakes test scores. NCLB’s robot-like refrain of “test and penalize” does not represent a policy that engenders educational equality.

The Bush administration’s use of the Brown legacy is a tactical move that effectively shields the legislation from critique. How can you argue against a policy that requires schools to break down and sort test scores by race, English proficiency, and economic background and focuses the public eye so sharply on the achievement gap? From within this framework, challenging NCLB would apparently place you in opposition to civil rights and, by extension, the legacy and struggles of the movement.

That’s the irony of the rhetorical link between NCLB and the Brown decision. NCLB is in fact the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—a federally funded education reform bill first passed in 1965 that, in large part, arose from the Civil Rights Movement. But as a twisted perversion of the original bill, NCLB, with its lack of funding and over-reliance on high-stakes testing, will ultimately hurt the low-income students and students of color the ESEA was supposed to help in the first place.

We know public education in the United States does not serve all of its students equally well, and there is no doubt that our contemporary educational disparities, much like the “separate but equal” doctrine of the white segregationists, have to end. But the Bush Administration’s attempts to tie No Child Left Behind to the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education and pass it off as serving educational equality amounts to education policy in blackface, with Bush, Paige, Eugene Hickok, and others playing to the crowd, while just under the masked language of accountability and the achievement gap, their legislation wreaks havoc on the education of all our children.

Wayne Au ( is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is an editorial associate for Rethinking Schools and is on the steering committee of the National Coalition of Education Activists.