Equity & Diversity

Report Feeds Debate Over Racial, Economic Inequities

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 31, 2016 7 min read
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One of the newest education policy disputes in Washington is beginning to mix with one of its oldest. Discussions about inequitable resources between well-resourced schools and their poorer counterparts overlap with fresh calls to address the growing share of schools that are both economically and racially segregated.

The same week that a fight escalated between the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and the Senate education committee chairman, over the equity of school spending, the Government Accountability Office released a report showing that the proportion of schools with outsized shares of students in poverty who are also students of color roughly doubled from 2000 to 2014, and that students in these schools receive more-constricted academic offerings.

Defending his department’s efforts to ensure a more equitable distribution of state and local funds under the Every Student Succeeds Act, Education Secretary John B. King Jr. stressed that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (of which ESSA is the latest version) must be used to ensure greater educational opportunities and resources for students of color as well as those from low-income backgrounds.

“It was a civil rights law then and it is now,” King said during a meeting last month with reporters.

At King’s side during that meeting was Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She highlighted the GAO report as evidence that the promise of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring segregated schools to be unconstitutional was being subverted. The progress made from the decision peaked in the 1980s “and has since then eroded,” Clarke said. (The GAO report was released 62 years to the day after the Brown ruling.)

Civil Rights Concerns

Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the top Democrat on the House education committee who requested and presented the GAO report, said he was introducing federal legislation to make it easier for individuals to take civil action against what they believe to be violations of provisions in the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin.

“They’re certainly not at all different,” said Liz King, the director of education policy at the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, referring to federal spending rules in the works designed to increase spending equity and its connection to school segregation. “Low-income white students are not getting the quality of education that they deserve. But it is also the case that minority students in poverty experience both racism and experience barriers because of their low family income.”

Trend Lines

The Government Accountability Office looked at the percentage of high-poverty schools made up mostly of black and Hispanic students compared to other schools over a period of more than a decade.


Source: Government Accountability Office

Not everyone is enamored with the idea that school desegregation should be the moral and policy imperative that policymakers and schools use to address funding and other inequities students of color face. They’ve raised questions about whether the growth of segregated schools in particular is overstated, and whether regulations to require more resource equity between schools within districts are a misguided solution for improving the opportunities and outcomes for students of color.

Socioeconomically integrated and diverse schools, the education secretary consistently has said in recent months, are powerful tools for helping disadvantaged children.

Persistent Disparities

The funding fight in Washington is over the requirement that federal aid for low-income students is an additional resource for districts, not to be used to fill in gaps left by state and local funding systems.

In essence, the Education Department wants rules creating more equalization between Title I schools, those serving relatively large shares of students from poor households, and wealthier, non-Title I schools, on a per-pupil-spending basis.

In a discussion at a recent federal Civil Rights Commission meeting, Ary Amerikaner, a deputy assistant secretary at the Education Department who has helped to craft the regulations, which are expected to be released later this year, noted that one-quarter of districts getting Title I aid spend fewer state and local dollars on schools with the biggest share of students in poverty than those with the lowest poverty levels, a situation that she stressed “cuts against both common sense and basic fairness.”

“It also undercuts the purpose of Title I,” Amerikaner said.

National Education Association Vice President Becky Pringle attacked the “institutional racism” she said persists 60 years after the Brown ruling. This helps to create “persistent disparities in funding for socioeconomically and racially segregated schools” in the United States, Pringle said: “Our nation has never provided sustained, adequate, and equitable funding in our communities of greatest need.”

Meanwhile, the GAO report finds that the share of public schools in which 75 percent to 100 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and also in which that same percentage of students are either black or Hispanic, nearly doubled from the 2000-01 academic year to 2013-14—from 9 percent of schools to 16 percent.

A rising share of students also attend the highest-poverty and most racially isolated schools—a proportion that went from 10 percent in 2000-01 to 17 percent in 2013-14, the GAO reports. The share of such isolated charter and magnet schools also increased.

(Concurrently, the share of schools with zero to 25 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals that were also zero to 25 percent black or Hispanic increased from 60 percent to 68 percent, according to the GAO.)

And in those racially and economically isolated schools, the GAO also found, there are often fewer advanced-course offerings. For example, in middle and high school for the 2011-12 academic year, 71 percent of low-poverty, low-minority schools offered calculus, compared with just 29 percent of high-poverty, high-minority schools.

“Our analysis of education data also showed that schools that were highly isolated by poverty and race generally had fewer resources and disproportionately more disciplinary actions than other schools,” the GAO report says.

For Liz King of the Leadership Conference, although the effort by the Education Department to use federal aid earmarked for low-income students as leverage on issues of state and local equity is helpful, it should only be expected to do so much.

“The forces that perpetuate segregation and discrimination are much more powerful than the Title I dollars available,” she said.

‘How Students Are Mixed’

But people should not extrapolate too much from the GAO report, said Steven Rivkin, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied school segregation and is skeptical that it is, in fact, on the rise if it is narrowly defined.

According to research he’s conducted, Rivkin said that the average percentage of black students’ schoolmates who are white has declined since the late 1980s. But that by itself does not mean school segregation is broadly on the rise, he said.

That’s because overall school diversity has increased as more Latinos, in particular, enter public schools and as schools enroll a smaller share of white students. In addition, the dissimilarity between the racial makeup of schools and their overall district populations, according to his research, has declined in recent years.

“Overall, segregation of black and white schools has not been rising, if you’re very careful to define segregation as how students are mixed, given the overall fraction of kids who are white and given the overall fraction of kids who are black,” Rivkin said.

Others don’t think that school integration should be a lodestar for rethinking education. Revealing the extent to which traditional public schools are segregated as the result of choices by school leaders primarily serves to reveal just how flawed traditional districts and K-12 systems are in myriad ways, said RiShawn Biddle, the editor of the Dropout Nation website and an education policy consultant.

Instead, Biddle essentially took Pringle’s point about institutionalized racism and put it to the opposite use. He advocated a scenario in which black and Latino parents, and not district-based schools and district leaders and union officials, have direct control over how money for education is spent.

“Dollars follow children. Parents direct those dollars. Then they get to have schools in their communities either run by other folks, or [which] they run themselves, that will actually work to improve the quality of education for their own children,” Biddle said. “If you think you can actually win today’s Indy 500 with a car that was built in 1905, that’s crazy.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 2016 edition of Education Week as Report Feeds Into Debate Over Racial, Economic Inequities


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