Milliken vs. Bradley — The Court Case that Shaped Education

For the past few months, education has been a wildly controversial topic. Ranging from Betsy DeVos and her voucher program, to President Trump and his tax reforms aimed at private universities, these issues have impacted students and families across the United States.

In my high school, I participate in policy debate, an activity that allows me to discuss a myriad of arguments without a filter. From debating about government policies to institutional racism, this year’s debate topic dwells on the regulation and funding for elementary and secondary schooling.

While debaters can focus on instruction in school or even programs and institutions within a school district, I decided to focus myself on the history of education and why things are the way they are today. Upon my research, I stumbled upon the Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley in 1974. The case is essentially this: the NAACP filed a suit against the state of Michigan (specifically against Governor William Milliken). The NAACP believed that although schools weren’t “separate and unequal” as they were before Brown vs. Board of Education, Michigan and its counties had enacted policies that would increase racial segregation in schools. Specifically through the unequal distribution of resources, due to gerrymandering of school district lines, African American students would experience abstract racism that wasn’t “deliberately” enacted. Starting one of the most controversial topics surrounding racism in education, the decision of Milliken v. Bradley continues to be predominant today.

The Supreme Court eventually overturned the lower courts in a 5-to-4 decision, stating that districts weren’t obligated to desegregate unless they could prove for sure that the drawing of the district lines had been purposely drawn with “racist intent.” They were.

Although this court case occurred around 40 years ago, its repercussions are still seen today. According to EdBuild founder and chief executive Rebecca Sibilia, Milliken v. Bradley was “the single most damaging Supreme Court decision” that affected educational equality: wealthier families in the status quo are now even seen to “breakaway” from larger school districts and create more affluent and whiter districts in their own area.

These issues are still being faced today due to decisions made during our country’s worst moments. Is there a solution? Potentially. However, as Sibilia states, “legislatures are complicit and sometimes actively enabling these things to happen.”

If we are to address the failure of our education system, we must first address Milliken v. Bradley.

Photograph by Arthur S. Siegel

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Dana Chen is a teenager living in Orange County, California. She is very passionate about feminism, woman’s rights, and gender equality. Dana is also the captain of her school’s debate team and loves to debate, spend time with her family, and play the violin.

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