The promises and problems of public education in the United States are so complex that they could easily fill volumes and a week-long television series.
But in his new documentary, Stanley Nelson distills into one hour what ails U.S. schools 50 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that outlawed schools segregated by race.
“Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise,” which premieres May 12 on PBS (check local listings), examines how schools in the U.S. remain segregated, and how they still provide a separate and unequal education for national minorities and the poor.
The approach here, combining historic footage, interviews and solid reporting, is not whining or sentimental about civil rights victories of yesteryear. Rather, it casts an unwavering gaze at the allocation of public resources today.
For example, in states like New York, schools are funded by each jurisdiction primarily though real estate taxes. This funding formula has created a system rampant with inequity, with wealthy suburban school districts able to spend thousands more per pupil than cash-strapped New York City.
Access to quality public education becomes ever more closely tied to economic status, to each family’s ability to position itself in proximity to the affluent, and to the willingness of Black and other national minority parents to transport their children to White neighborhoods.
Not only do entire school districts remain segregated, “Beyond Brown” details how some southern jurisdictions actually used public money to set up Whites-only “academies.”
In Prince Edward County, Va., the county where students, and not adults, initiated the fight for better schools, school board officials actually closed all the public schools rather than integrate them according to the Supreme Court order. While the county opened so-called academies for Whites, an entire generation of Blacks from that county missed nearly six years of schooling.
This unwavering focus on the allocation of resources allows Nelson to springboard from southern segregation to northern segregation in Boston. (Hence the famous 1976 photograph “Soiling Old Glory,” by Stanley Forman, showing a White man at an anti-bussing rally in Boston ready to attack a Black man with an American flag.)
He crosses the country to illustrate how, even when a school in Los Angeles is “integrated,” the system of tracking still often consigns the majority of Black and Latino students to less challenging, “slower” classes, and fills accelerated classes with Whites and Asians.
Finally, by following the money, Nelson’s path leads him straight to the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated strict achievement standard for public schools but did not provide additional funding for troubled schools.
In particular, requirements of the act have led some states to institute standardized tests that must be passed for promotion or graduation. “Beyond Brown” highlights the heartbreaking case of Florida resident Ashley Johnson, who graduated from her high school with honors and received a four-year scholarship, only to have her scholarship revoked because she did not pass the FCAT, Florida’s controversial standardized test. In a tearful interview, Johnson says that there were things on the test that she never learned at her school that served a Black and poor population.
The case of Ashley Johnson, who would have been the first person in her family to attend college, has served as a lightening rod for Florida’s Black leaders, some of who have called for a boycott of the test. In this documentary, her case is a sobering example of the roadblocks that exist for national minority and poor students, even those who have risen above the anti-education mantra of popular culture—to get an education that is “equal” to that received by the affluent.
The Leave No Child Behind Act, which is actually leaving many children behind every year, makes it more difficult, not easier, to translate academic achievement into social and economic advancement.