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The Suburban Promise of Brown: Addressing Challenges to Sustaining Racially Diverse Schools and Communities

Teachers College, Columbia University

Friday, May 2, 2014 at 8:00 AM (EDT)

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A Symposium of Ideas, Solutions and Possibilities on the 60th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education

Sixty years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education declared that schools purposefully divided by race are unconstitutional, less than 20 percent of Americans lived in the suburbs. In the ensuing decades, the majority of the U.S. population – about 53 percent – settled in suburbia. Today, the crisis of separate and unequal schools is as salient in the suburbs as anywhere. Once seen as havens for whites fleeing racially diverse cities and their schools, the suburbs are changing rapidly, making them the epicenter of the political and moral struggle for integration and equal opportunity. This one-day symposium is designed to celebrate victories and identify major setbacks on the road to the suburban promise of Brown. 

The relationship between the history of the American suburbs and the legacy of Brown is not as straightforward as we may think, and it has certainly evolved over time. In the post-WWII era, when mostly white families left cities to occupy the suburbs, the widely held belief was that the desegregation policies derived from Brown drove them to leave. Although Whites also left cities with no such desegregation policies in place, the story remained. Today, however, when the suburbs are becoming increasingly racially and ethnically diverse, they provide the best context in which we can explore the future of Brown.  

In fact, many of the central legal and moral issues embodied in Brown have come home to roost in the suburbs as their populations shift dramatically to include not only Black, Hispanic and Asian families from the cities, but also newly arrived immigrants from dozens of countries. At the same time, a growing number of suburbs are becoming more economically fragile and are struggling to pay for multiple local services, including public schools. Meanwhile, their property values and tax bases are often declining as their infrastructure is crumbling.

Clearly, the American suburbs are at a crossroads – they are both our hope for a more diverse and integrated society and they are symbolic of how high the economic and political stakes are to keep these communities solvent. Across the country, people are coming together to work on these issues. There is much progress being made in the areas of housing, infrastructure, jobs and transportation. What is missing is a thoughtful vision of how the public schools can fit into the larger vision of maintaining demographically stable and sustainable suburbs.

Thus, in many instances, our suburbs are microcosms of the most critical issues facing the country as a whole. This one-day conference in honor of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case is intended to help policy makers, journalists and educators understand more fully the implications of the shifting demographics of suburban America for the future of public education. The multi-media event is intended to provide an overview of the rapid demographic changes suburban communities and schools are experiencing today; the social, political and economic impact of these changes; and the choices facing our nation today.

Multi-issue coalitions to revitalize older, racially diverse suburbs are cropping up across the country and making progress in addressing issues related to housing, infrastructure and transportation. Many of these groups are also trying to tackle educational issues and support the diverse public schools in these communities. Not enough attention has been paid, however, to the state and federal educational policies that make it difficult to sustain racially, ethnically and culturally diverse public schools. From school funding formulas, to accountability systems, to fragmented district boundaries, to an absence of social services and universal preschool programs, the educational policy arena consistently works against racially and ethnically diverse schools and communities.  

Over the last six decades, the potential impact of the Brown decision has been muted not only by these recent educational reforms, but also by a subsequent Supreme Court ruling in Milliken v. Bradley in 1974. In that decision, the Court made it far more difficult for school desegregation remedies to transcend school district boundaries. Today, as much as 84 percent of school segregation happens across and not within school district boundaries. Nowhere is this more evident than in increasingly diverse and fragmented suburban counties where homebuyers can easily step over school district boundary lines.

In 2014, on the 60th Anniversary of Brown and the 40th Anniversary of Milliken, we are destined to repeat and maintain age-old patterns of racial, ethnic and socio-economic segregation in suburban counties across the country.  Once increasingly diverse public schools are deemed “failures,” white families with more resources and political clout abandon diverse suburban communities, leading to a downward spiral of declining property values, tax revenues, services and reputation.  Our demographic destiny begs us to address these patterns of segregation and resegregation and develop policies, practices and political movements to support diverse communities and schools.

Teachers College Symposium: The Legacy of the Brown Decision 

Teachers College, Columbia University has a proud history of supporting the cause of racial equality. Thus, it is only fitting that a gathering of the country’s most thoughtful scholars, policy makers, practitioners and activists on these issues will take place at TC. Our centralized urban location makes TC a hub for suburban educators, policy makers and organizers from the tri-state region and beyond. We envision an event that will highlight important research on these issues at a national level and connect that research to critical policy and practice issues on Long Island and elsewhere. The symposium will also be accessible to a wide audience of people who cannot be in Manhattan on May 2 through webcasting and a website where people can download resources, post comments and connect to other suburbanites from across the country. The website will also allow the symposium to continue to have an impact long after the May 2 meeting is over. 

Symposium Schedule

8:00-8:45 Registration, Coffee and Breakfast

8:45 – 9:30 Welcome and Invited Address on the Housing-School Nexus in Suburbia 

Welcomes: Susan Fuhrman, President, Teachers College, and Nancy Rauch Douzinas, Trustee, Teachers College, and President, The Rauch Foundation

Opening Keynote: Xavier de Souzu Briggs, Ford Foundation,  editor of Geography of Opportunity and author of Moving to Opportunity opening keynote on the housing-school connection and the significance of bringing the housing and education people together

9:30-10:45 This is Not the Cleaver’s Suburb: Macro Trends of Suburban Demographics, Segregation and Acceptance of Diversity

Moderator: Nate Goodson, Minister from Upper Darby, PA and member of Building One PA


Jennifer Hochschild, Harvard University, author of Creating a New Racial Order, which highlights changing racial attitudes, growing acceptance of diverse communities and schools, and implications for policies and politics

John Logan, Brown University, an expert on migration, immigration, settlement patterns and issues of racial/ethnic and SES segregation in suburban communities and schools

Sheryll Cashin, Georgetown University, law professor and civil rights activist; author of the forthcoming book, Place Not Race.

10:45-11 Break

11-12:15 Policies and Practices that Work Against Sustainable, Diverse Suburbs and Schools

Moderator: Luis Huerta, Teachers College, Columbia University

Myron Orfield, U of Minnesota, link between suburban segregation and land use policies that maintain it and its impact on schools  

Doug Ready, Teachers College, Columbia University professor and expert on segregation in housing and schools in NY metro – on the role of school district boundaries in reinforcing segregation and uneven property values

Michael Rebell, Teachers College, Columbia University professor and expert on School finance – when local control and school funding works against diversity and district viability

Amy Stuart Wells, Teachers College, Columbia University professor and expert on the relationship between the accountability policies and standardized tests work against sustainable, diverse public schools


Moderator and Respondent: Earnest Morrell, Teachers College, Columbia University and Director of the Institute on Urban and Minority Education (IUME)

Keynote Address: Gloria Ladson-Billings, University of Wisconsin-Madison, a keynote address on How the Structures of Inequality reinforce the Culture of Inequality within Public Schools and Classrooms

1-2 Break, Box Lunch and Breakouts with Grassroots Organizers working in diverse suburbs across the country

2-3:15 Taking it to the Streets: From DC to the Grassroots  

Moderator: Elaine Gross, Erase Racism

Building one New Jersey person and/or Maplewood-S.O. (see their video)   

Rob Breymaier, Executive Director, Oak Park Regional Housing Center (Metro Chicago) on the long-term efforts of one community to sustain residential diversity over several decades and the role of the public schools in that effort.

Susan Eaton, One Nation Indivisible, Harvard University, on how educators and school communities are facing the challenges creating and sustaining vibrant racially diverse public schools

Judith Johnson, Superintendent of Schools,  Mount Vernon, NY, on the type of leadership needed to improve and support racially diverse suburban public schools

Eileen Santiago, Principal, Thomas Edison Elementary School, Port Chester, NY, the role of full-service schools in a racially and ethnically diverse community

3:15-3:30 Break

3:30-4:45 Policies at the Federal, State and Local Levels Needed to Sustain Diverse and Vibrant Schools and Communities

Moderator: Jeffrey Henig, Chair, Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis, Teachers College, Columbia. University

David Johns, Executive Director, White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans

Sharon Lynn Kagan, Teachers College, Columbia University Professor and expert on the need for more early childhood education for low-income families in the suburbs

Marlon Millner, Norristown, PA, councilman and Baptist pastor in Abington Township.  He was a significant leader in Building One PA’s campaign to challenge policies and practices within HUD that tended to concentrate Housing Choice Voucher holders in a handful of suburban communities

Paul Scully, Executive Director, Building One America

Tom Rogers, District Superintendent, Nassau County BOCES

4:45-5:30 Schools Amid the Housing Patterns: How Education Policy Gets in the Way

Moderator: Amy Stuart Wells, Teachers College, Columbia University

Closing Keynote: Jeannie Oakes, Director of Educational Opportunity and Scholarship Programs, Ford Foundation, on the types of educational policies and practices we need to sustain racially and ethnically diverse public schools in the suburbs (and cities)  

TC video – on the educational benefits of diversity and bringing us back to the Promise of Brown in suburban contexts

5:30-6:30 Reception and Networking

For more information visit our website:

Have questions about The Suburban Promise of Brown: Addressing Challenges to Sustaining Racially Diverse Schools and Communities? Contact Teachers College, Columbia University

When & Where

Teachers College, Columbia University
525 W 120th St
New York, NY 10027

Friday, May 2, 2014 at 8:00 AM (EDT)

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