Promises to Keep?

Brown v. Board and Equal Educational Opportunity

April 1-3, 2004
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Sponsored by the College of Law and the College of Education

In May 2004, the country will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, perhaps the most significant decision in American constitutional law and one that speaks eloquently to our vision of equality and justice for all. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign plans to devote the academic year 2003-04 to a commemoration of the Brown anniversary and to an engagement with the themes of simple social justice that animate the decision. As a featured event of this year-long commemoration, the Colleges of Education and Law will jointly sponsor a major academic conference, exploring the impact of Brown on our conception of educational opportunity and assessing the nation's progress in achieving the promise of Brown.
Planning Committee

At its most basic level, Brown promises equal educational opportunity for all Americans and recognizes that racially segregated schools simply cannot make good on such a promise. More than just a decision about schools, Brown ended centuries of official state-sponsored discrimination against African-Americans, articulating a principle of integration that proposed to sweep away Jim Crow laws in the South and to end de facto segregation in the North. More than just a case about race, Brown promised equality of opportunity to all people, rich and poor, male and female, straight and gay, abled and disabled, urban and suburban. Perhaps no single decision has meant so much to so many (both in the United States and around the world) and to their dreams for a better life.

Yet fifty years after the decision, Brown's promises to many seem unfulfilled. Poor children living in urban centers overwhelmingly attend re-segregated schools, as more affluent white families have departed for the suburbs. Methods of school funding virtually assure that wealthy districts will offer superior educational opportunities. As a result, educational opportunity for many now means the chance to attend a private school, as voucher programs and school choice further threaten the funding of many financially strapped school districts. Studies continue to reveal persistent gaps in rates of punishment for school misconduct, and in gifted program enrollments. White students have increasingly challenged race-based affirmative action programs, arguing that such programs interfere with their own right to equal educational opportunity. The decision in the Michigan case raises important questions about the future of such programs, and about the ability of the educational system to eliminate achievement gaps in the next twenty-five years.

This conference will explore the past, present and future of Brown. Scheduled to take place on the Urbana-Champaign campus on April 1-3, 2004, fifty years after the decision came down, the conference will bring together a distinguished group of judges, policy makers, public intellectuals, and academics to discuss the challenges the nation faces in delivering on the promises of Brown. Apart from an assessment of Brown's successes and failures, the conference will examine a second generation of school desegregation litigation, the challenges posed by school voucher and charter programs, the prospects for achieving parity in educational funding between urban and suburban schools, and the challenges of integration in the current environment.