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Sunday, May 23, 2004

With considerable fanfare, Topeka, Kan., marked the 50th anniversary last week of the Brown v. Board decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that established the doctrine under which U.S. schools have been desegregated.

As part of Topeka's celebration, Monroe Elementary School was dedicated as a national historic site. An all-black school in the 1950s, Monroe was the school where Linda Brown, the daughter of Oliver Brown, received her education even though she had to be bused two miles while the family lived near the all-white Sumner Elementary School.

It was appropriate in so many ways that another daughter, now Cheryl Brown Henderson, was the person chosen to introduce President Bush at Monday's dedication. (Not too far away at the Kansas State Capitol, John Kerry participated in signing a proclamation regarding the historic Brown decision along with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.)

More than 5,000 persons attended the dedication at Monroe Elementary School, culminating more than a decade of preparation to create a fitting memorial to the Supreme Court's unanimous school-desegregation decision.

Oliver Brown, in 1951, attempted to enroll Linda at Sumner Elementary School but was told she had to attend the all-black school. At the time, Topeka had four black elementary schools and 18 elementary schools for whites. Brown decided to join other plaintiffs in the NAACP's lawsuit that challenged segregation in Kansas. Eventually, similar lawsuits from South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia were consolidated into the Kansas case that became known as Brown v. Board of Education.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme court ruled separate-but-equal schools were unconstitutional.

While the impact of the ruling would turn out to be enormous, it took some time for desegregation to occur. Most schools around the country began the process at the start of the school year in the fall of 1954, and the effort took years in some areas. Today, there are some parents and educators who contend the task still isn't completed.

Missourians have seen the lingering effects of desegregation thanks to lawsuits in Kansas City and St. Louis that resulted in takeovers of those urban districts by federal judges who ordered state taxpayers to spend billions of dollars in an attempt to achieve what the justices had in mind in 1954.

The 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board was marked with hardly any notice in much of the country, including Cape Girardeau. Many individuals who were in school at the time of the Supreme Court's decision or had children in school say they don't recall that there were any major problems when schools here opened for the new term in September 1954 with blacks and whites attending the same schools.

One attempt at limited school choice has largely been forgotten. The Cape Girardeau School District and others across the nation also operated, for a while, voluntary schools where parents of black students could choose to send their children if they didn't want to send them to an integrated school. Most black parents in Cape Girardeau chose the voluntary school that first year.

Today there are still concerns about schools with high percentages of minority students, which can reflect both housing patterns and how attendance boundaries are drawn. Even in Topeka, the effort to get white students from the area served by a mostly white high school to attend an inner-city high school lasted well into the 1990s. Around the nation, magnet schools have been created to draw a better mix of students.

In far too many districts, black students continue to do worse on achievement tests and have higher dropout rates. That is likely to continue until parents who believe their students -- black or white -- still aren't getting a decent education are given the option of choosing, with public funding, which school they want to attend.

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