LET us now praise the Brown decision. Let us now bury the Brown decision.
With yesterday's Supreme Court ruling ending the use of voluntary schemes to create racial balance among students, it is time to acknowledge that Brown's time has passed. It is worthy of a send-off with fanfare for setting off the civil rights movement and inspiring social progress for women, gays and the poor. But the decision in Brown v. Board of Education that focused on outlawing segregated schools as unconstitutional is now out of step with American political and social realities.
Desegregation does not speak to dropout rates that hover near 50 percent for black and Hispanic high school students. It does not equip society to address the so-called achievement gap between black and white students that mocks Brown's promise of equal educational opportunity.
And the fact is, during the last 20 years, with Brown in full force, America's public schools have been growing more segregated -- even as the nation has become more racially diverse. In 2001, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that the average white student attends a school that is 80 percent white, while 70 percent of black students attend schools where nearly two-thirds of students are black and Hispanic.
By the early '90s, support in the federal courts for the central work of Brown -- racial integration of public schools -- began to rapidly expire. In a series of cases in Atlanta, Oklahoma City and Kansas City, Mo., frustrated parents, black and white, appealed to federal judges to stop shifting children from school to school like pieces on a game board. The parents wanted better neighborhood schools and a better education for their children, no matter the racial make-up of the school. In their rulings ending court mandates for school integration, the judges, too, spoke of the futility of using schoolchildren to address social ills caused by adults holding fast to patterns of residential segregation by both class and race.
The focus of efforts to improve elementary and secondary schools shifted to magnet schools, to allowing parents the choice to move their children out of failing schools and, most recently, to vouchers and charter schools. The federal No Child Left Behind plan has many critics, but there's no denying that it is an effective tool for forcing teachers' unions and school administrators to take responsibility for educating poor and minority students.
It was an idealistic Supreme Court that in 1954 approved of Brown as a race-conscious policy needed to repair the damage of school segregation and protect every child's 14th-Amendment right to equal treatment under law. In 1971, Chief Justice Warren Burger, writing for a unanimous court still embracing Brown, said local school officials could make racial integration a priority even if it did not improve educational outcomes because it helped ''to prepare students to live in a pluralistic society.''
But today a high court with a conservative majority concludes that any policy based on race -- no matter how well intentioned -- is a violation of every child's 14th-Amendment right to be treated as an individual without regard to race. We've come full circle.
In 1990, after months of interviews with Justice Thurgood Marshall, who had been the lead lawyer for the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund on the Brown case, I sat in his Supreme Court chambers with a final question. Almost 40 years later, was he satisfied with the outcome of the decision? Outside the courthouse, the failing Washington school system was hypersegregated, with more than 90 percent of its students black and Latino. Schools in the surrounding suburbs, meanwhile, were mostly white and producing some of the top students in the nation.
Had Mr. Marshall, the lawyer, made a mistake by insisting on racial integration instead of improvement in the quality of schools for black children?
His response was that seating black children next to white children in school had never been the point. It had been necessary only because all-white school boards were generously financing schools for white children while leaving black students in overcrowded, decrepit buildings with hand-me-down books and underpaid teachers. He had wanted black children to have the right to attend white schools as a point of leverage over the biased spending patterns of the segregationists who ran schools -- both in the 17 states where racially separate schools were required by law and in other states where they were a matter of culture.
If black children had the right to be in schools with white children, Justice Marshall reasoned, then school board officials would have no choice but to equalize spending to protect the interests of their white children.
Racial malice is no longer the primary motive in shaping inferior schools for minority children. Many failing big city schools today are operated by black superintendents and mostly black school boards.
And today the argument that school reform should provide equal opportunity for children, or prepare them to live in a pluralistic society, is spent. The winning argument is that better schools are needed for all children -- black, white, brown and every other hue -- in order to foster a competitive workforce in a global economy.
Dealing with racism and the bitter fruit of slavery and ''separate but equal'' legal segregation was at the heart of the court's brave decision 53 years ago. With Brown officially relegated to the past, the challenge for brave leaders now is to deliver on the promise of a good education for every child.