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Arne Duncan: Schools Must Give Poor and Minority Students Equal Access to Resources

By Alyson Klein — October 01, 2014 5 min read
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Months after data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights showed deep disparities between poor and minority students and their more advantaged peers when it comes to educational resources, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is putting school districts and states on notice that the office for civil rights can investigate states, districts, and even schools that aren’t doing enough to ensure equal access on everything from high-quality facilities to Advanced Placement courses.

The department outlined OCR’s role in ensuring equal access to resources in a letter sent today to states, school districts, and schools. The “Dear Colleague” letter marks the first guidance on the issue of resource equity released during the Obama administration.

Duncan talked up the guidance in a speech today to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Public Policy Conference, saying it will put important tools in the hands on schools and communities.

“We will be a partner in that effort, but we will also be a watchdog,” he said. “We must be serious about increasing economic opportunity and ... [recognize that we are] offering students of color less than what we offer other students.”

The letter makes it clear to school districts, states, and educators that OCR can look into resources disparities in a range of areas, including:

  • Equal access to educational opportunities, such as Advanced Placement courses, gifted and talented programs, college-preparatory programs, and extra-curricular activities. There could be many schools and states that fall under scrutiny—Of schools serving the highest percentages of black and Latino students, only 66 percent and 74 percent offer chemistry and Algebra 2, respectively, according to the federal civil rights data collection.
  • Equal access to qualified teachers and school leaders, as measured by factors such as turnover, absenteeism, professional development, and whether or not the teacher is leading a subject in which he or she holds a degree. Schools have a long way to go in this area, too, according to the federal data collection. Nearly 7 percent of black students attend schools where more than 20 percent of teachers hadn’t yet met all state certification requirements. That figure was four times higher than for white students. OCR can also look into whether states and districts are providing poor and minority kids with their fair share of qualified support staff, such as school psychologists, guidance counselors and paraprofessionals, according to the letter
  • Equal access to school facilities. OCR can consider factors such as overcrowding, lighting, and accessibility for students with disabilities, as well as the quality of areas such as athletic facilities and science labs.
  • Equal access to technology, including laptops, tablets, the internet, and instructional materials, such as calculators and library books.

In investigating instances of resource inequality, OCR takes into consideration whether districts and states are working to address the problem The guidance advises states, schools and districts, to carefully consider any hard data on resource equity—including the data contained in the OCR collection. And it recommends school and district leaders do a careful evaluation of resources available, and address any inequities right away, giving priority to the students most in need. Districts and states should also consider outreach to parents and students—including giving them an opportunity to voice concerns about resource disparities.

Range of Reaction

The guidance got a thumbs-up from Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, which recently called for Duncan’s resignation.

“We know what equity looks like,” she said in a statement. “Walk into the most impressive, gorgeous public school you can find with a theater department, a chemistry lab with up-to-date equipment, and a library full of books. You know those schools. They are the best schools in the world. Equity means every school should look like those schools.”

In speaking at the Hispanic Caucus Institute’s event, Eskelsen underscored that the office won’t be able to investigate claims of inequality without people actually filing those claims. So the NEA has launched a new tool on its web site where people can log instances of injustice.

And the announcement won plaudits from civil rights groups, including the Education Trust, which looks out for poor and minority children.

“While I can tell you as a former district administrator that nobody sat around in district offices plotting how to make sure that privileged students get more than their fair share of our best resources, the fact that too few sit around plotting how to undo that very pattern is deeply troubling,” said Sonja Brookins Santelises, the organization’s vice-president of K-12 policy and practice in a statement. “At some point, unintentional becomes intentional, and we are long past that point.”

But the new guidance may have unintended consequences, said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education initiatives at the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank based in Washington.

For instance, school districts might be wary of starting an Advanced Placement program at one school, if they can not also afford to start it at another, with somewhat different demographics, he said.

Schools may think, “you are safer not doing anything than doing something unevenly,"said Hess. “You are going to make already risk-adverse state and local officials potentially even more risk- adverse.”

Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the department said that’s not the department’s intention.

“It’s our strong hope that nothing in the document would chill any steps schools would take,” she said.

Anne Hyslop, a senior policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, said putting additional scrutiny on resource inequity is a good thing, but the problem has been so persistent for so long it will take a lot more than just OCR guidance to fix it.

“It’s a good first step to shine a light on these disparities, to actually call out districts” where there are big differences in resources, she said. But, she added, “We can’t expect overnight to move a whole cohort of teachers from one district to another. ... I don’t think it’s going to be something where you can just turn on the light switch and it’s going to be equal. This is a decades-long struggle.”

Staff Writer Lauren Camera contributed to this story.