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Brown v. Board of Education - Separate but Equal Has No Place in Education

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

For Black History Month, I thought I’d discuss the Landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, and how it helped pave the way from desegregation in public schools to the inclusion of children with disabilities in public schools.

Currently, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, children with disabilities are ensured “a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.” 20 USC sec. 1400(d)(1)(A). Early legislation did not afford the broad rights individuals with disabilities have today. In true fashion, not all local, state, and federal municipalities interpreted the legislation the same. Below is look at the landmark case of Brown v Board of Education to understand the evolution of “the right to education.”

Although there were earlier cases that dealt with racial segregation and discrimination in higher education, Brown v. Board of Education was the first Supreme Court case (actually a consolidation of 5 separate cases) involving the segregation in public schools, and therefore a Fourteenth Amendment case where the Court held that:

"Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments … In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education … Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all equal terms."

347 U.S. 483 at 495 (1954) (emphasis added). The Court concluded that:

"in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Id. at 496 (emphasis added). This was a reversal of the Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” doctrine. Although the case was brought on segregation grounds, the “separate but equal” and exclusion ruling serves as the foundation for future right to education law.

The landmark cases that followed helped students with mental health disabilities and disabilities that affected "behavior" who were excluded from public education as a result.

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