The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights is investigating whether the New York State Department of Education and the New York State Board of Regents discriminated against districts with large numbers of students of color by directing less funding their way than to predominately white districts.
The investigation follows a complaint by the superintendents of the Schenectady and Middletown school districts in upstate New York that “the funding structure implemented by New York State results in discrimination against school districts with predominantly nonwhite student populations, English-language-learner students, and students with disabilities.”
They originally filed the grievance against the state of New York, the New York state legislature, the governor of New York, the state comptroller, the state board of regents, and the state education department, but OCR has jurisdiction only over the latter two.
The Nov. 25 announcement comes in the wake of guidance issued by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in October clarifying the civil rights office’s role in investigating complaints of discrimination based on deep disparities between poor and minority students and their more advantaged peers.
“It’s the right thing to do. Hopefully, change will result from it,” Larry Spring, the superintendent of the 10,000-student Schenectady City School District said in the press release issued after the investigation was announced.
Since the initial announcement, however, the federal Education Department and the two school districts have declined to make additional comments about the investigation.
Complaints About Inequity
The Education Department’s civil rights office has investigated allegations of resource inequity before, including inequitable access to strong teachers, college-preparatory coursework, technology, and facilities.
But prior to its October guidance letter, the Education Department hadn’t released guidance on this topic for nearly 13 years.
The New York investigation will focus on New York’s Foundation Aid, a $5.5 billion pool of money that the Empire State is supposed to be distributing to schools based on student-need factors, including poverty, English-language-learner status, and the number of students with disabilities.
That pot of money was the result of a 2007 New York State Court of Appeals ruling that sided with parents who brought a lawsuit against the state arguing that it was violating its constitutional obligation to provide every student with a “sound basic education.” The ruling charged the state with investing $5.5 billion over four years into schools through the Foundation Aid formula.
However, an August 2014 report from the Alliance for Quality Education, a New York group that advocates for equal funding for school districts, showed that the amount of Foundation Aid owed per pupil is 2.3 times greater in high-need districts than in wealthy districts.
The Schenectady school district and the 7,000-student Middletown district are among the 8 percent of districts in New York with minority-majority student populations. The civil rights office hasn’t set a timeline for the New York state investigation.
A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2015 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Probing Claim of Racial Disparity in N.Y. Funding