To the Editor:
I extend my thanks to Michael Holzman (“It’s About the Schools,” Commentary, June 4, 2008) for focusing attention on the central role of institutional racism in our unwillingness to salvage urban public schools.
The 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Alexander v. Sandoval gutted the individual right to challenge policy that results in a “disparate impact” on a class protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Individuals must now prove that policymakers knowingly made a decision for the primary purpose of discriminating against the negatively affected parties.
In the past several years, the National Center for Schools and Communities has worked with local groups in 10 major U.S. cities to document equity issues embedded in the policies of their school districts. We use the simple but often avoided approach of relating resources to outcomes. (Relating demographics to outcomes is the common institutional defense.) We then examine the distribution of those resources to demographics. Available indicators vary widely in quantity and quality. Nevertheless, whether we count average years of teacher experience, school bands, or licensed school librarians, resources correlate positively with outcomes such as high test scores and attendance, and inversely with outcomes such as suspensions or 9th grade retention, in nine of the 10 cities. When we examine the distribution of those resources, they consistently vary inversely with the low-income, black, and Latino enrollments.
Our colleagues across the country have documented similar conclusions. Parents, students, and their grassroots organizations have repeatedly validated our collective findings with their day-to-day experience. Most importantly, groups have repeatedly confronted public officials with the results of official policy and practice. At some point, informed acquiescence to discriminatory results constitutes a conscious policy decision, whether or not it shows up in the minutes of a meeting.
We now have a Congress that could correct the hole the Sandoval decision shot through the Civil Rights Act. This repair would not end the structural racism evident in much of our public education system. But it would give African-American and other students and parents of color a tool to challenge some of the most egregious and obvious barriers to the equitable access of millions of children and youths to the education that is their right.
John M. Beam
National Center for Schools and Communities
New York, N.Y.
A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Congress Could Repair Damage to Civil Rights