The Fight for Educational Equity Continues

May 24th, 2021

Category: Funding and Equity

On Monday, May 17, I witnessed an important part of Delaware history.

On that day, 67 years ago, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case established that “separate” schools for white and black students was not equal.

Unbeknownst to many Delawareans, a six-year-old girl from Hockessin named Shirley Bulah played a critical role in that decision.

That little girl’s parents watched a school bus zoom right past her house every morning while their daughter had to walk two miles to a one-room schoolhouse called the Hockessin Colored School. She was not allowed to get on the bus or to attend the all-white school not far from her home.

Her parents’ request was denied (see the official letter below), but their plight caught the attention of Louis Redding, the state’s first black attorney, who brought Shirley’s case to Delaware’s Court of Chancery.

Chancellor Collins J. Seitz visited Colored School #107 and the all-white school Shirley would have attended, and concluded: “it was as clear as the nose on your face that these schools were not equal.”

One had a nurse’s office, a gymnasium, an auditorium, and well-maintained classrooms. School #107 had none of those things.

Brown v. Board of Education is a landmark case in social justice. It is named after Linda Brown in Topeka, Kansas in a case brought to the courts in 1951. This case, was bundled with four other cases based on educational discrimination in South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware, and it was brought to the Supreme Court in 1952. Sarah Bulah, Shirley’s mother, was the lead plaintiff in Bulah v. Gebhart, one of the two Delaware cases. The decision in 1954 clarified that separate is not equal under the equal protections clause of the 14th Amendment. This precedent opened the door to desegregation in movie theaters and other walks of life and with the Montgomery Bus Boycott starting the following year, many see the Brown decision as the start of the Civil Rights movement.

On Monday, Governor John Carney along with several other federal, state, and local officials, announced  in front of the Hockessin Colored School that the site would become a part of the county and national park system and that May 17 will henceforth be known as Brown v. Board of Education Day in Delaware.

It was moving to hear from a relative of Shirley’s nearly 70 years later. The courage of Shirley’s family is a reminder that progress does not always move in a straight line.

While this chapter of American history feels like a long time ago, several of the students from that one-room schoolhouse attended the ceremony to remind us, live and in-person, that these ugly days of institutional racism were indeed not that long ago. Today, debates over the re-segregation of our schools and inequitable distribution of resources rage on.

At this moment, advocates and legislators continue to chip away at a school funding formula that many experts call unfair. Outside experts, community members, and our judicial system alike have questioned a system where schools serving the highest-need students receive inadequate resources.

However, even in this backdrop, we see signs of progress. The legislature passed SB56, making Gov. Carney’s Opportunity Funding initiative to better support low-income and English learner students a permanent fixture in Delaware. Later that week,  two dozen lawmakers added their support to a piece of legislation known as Concurrent Resolution 24 that indicates their commitment and puts the state on a path toward a more holistic modernization of our funding system.

This is an important step on the path to equity. There is momentum to continue that work and we hope to hear more about this in the coming weeks.

After all, our current funding system was built before Shirley was born. It’s past time.

Author:
Paul Herdman

pherdman@rodelde.org