This article originally appeared in Harvard Magazine.
The Supreme Court seemed to close a long, fraught chapter in American history in 1954 when it held that the Constitution prohibits every state from maintaining separate public schools for blacks and for whites. In Brown v. Board of Education, by a vote of 9-0, the justices called for an absolute end to a pervasive consequence of America’s racial divide. The ruling is often called the most important of the Court in the twentieth century; it is clearly the most important about school desegregation.
James Ryan, the new dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSE), argues persuasively that the second most significant ruling about school desegregation is Milliken v. Bradley, which the Court decided in 1974. The decision was momentous for the opposite reason: it halted the startlingly short-lived national effort to desegregate public schools, heavily segregated by race because of widespread segregation in housing.
The justices ruled, 5-4, that a metropolitan area could not desegregate a city’s largely black school district by consolidating it with largely white suburban districts and transporting students between them, unless there was proof that suburbs had deliberately devised separate schools for blacks and for whites or were otherwise liable for segregation across district lines. The majority said de jure segregation (caused by the state or a local government) was different from de facto segregation (resulting from social and economic factors, like lower housing prices in the city and white flight to the suburbs) and that it was constitutional to address only the first through a metropolitan-wide effort.
It is common among education reformers to describe the country’s current education crisis as “the civil-rights issue of our time.” For Ryan, that is literally so: the crisis stems from the failure to desegregate public schools after the Supreme Court would not let remedies for reform cross the line between city and suburbs, a fundamental divide of geography, race, and class.
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Watch the Ed School's website and social media channels over the next week for more coverage of Dean James Ryan's first days at HGSE.