ND Expert: The legacy and challenge of a landmark decision

by Michael O. Garvey

John Schoenig

Reflecting on the recent anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, John Schoenig, director of the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) Program for K-12 educational access, insisted that serious challenges to the equality of educational opportunity remain.

“On May 17, we commemorated the 58th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, arguably the most important civil rights decision in Supreme Court history,” Schoenig said.

“It was through Brown that the deplorable legacy of ‘separate but equal’ that had been enshrined in Plessy v. Ferguson was formally prohibited in America’s public schools. This year’s anniversary is a particularly special one, insofar as Brown is now as old as Plessy was when Brown was decided.”

According to Schoenig, “The Brown opinion invoked the spirit of Justice John Marshall Harlan, who wrote a passionate dissent in Plessy on the repugnancy of segregation. ‘Our Constitution is color blind,’ said Justice Harlan, ’and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.’”

Schoenig said that “it is difficult to reflect on Brown and its legacy without being struck by the degree to which we have failed to make good on its promise. In our work here with Notre Dame’s ACE program, our interest in and passion for expanding educational options for at-risk children is animated by a belief that the promise of Brown may never fully be realized until we take deliberate steps to ensure that at-risk families have the same opportunity to determine their child’s education — be it in a traditional public school, a faith-based or secular private school, or a charter school — as the opportunity enjoyed by more privileged families.

“A veritable ocean of ink has already been spilled on the the manner in which equal educational opportunity is systematically denied to at-risk minority children,” Schoenig continued, “and the debate over the causes of this situation are as fierce as any in contemporary civic discourse. But on this, the 58th anniversary of Brown, we would be well served to ignore the white noise for a moment and acknowledge that empowering at-risk children with as many quality educational options as possible is a simple and straightforward matter of social justice.”

Contact: John Schoenig, 574-631-8709, Schoenig.1@nd.edu