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Civil Rights Office May Probe Inequities in K-12 Resources

By Alyson Klein — October 07, 2014 3 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 in educational resources for poor and minority students, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is putting school districts and states on notice that the office may 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 the OCR’s role in ensuring equal access to resources in a letter sent last week to education leaders. The letter marks the first guidance on the issue of resource equity released during the Obama administration.

Mr. Duncan talked up the guidance in a speech to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Public Policy Conference Oct. 1, saying it will put important tools in the hands of 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 that the OCR can look into 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 extracurricular activities. 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.

• 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. According to federal data, nearly 7 percent of black students attended 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.

• School facilities. The 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.

• Technology, including laptops, tablets, the Internet, and instructional materials, such as calculators and library books.

Potential Challenges

In investigating instances of resource inequality, the OCR takes into consideration whether districts and states are working to address the problem. The guidance 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.

The guidance got a thumbs-up from Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, which recently called for Mr. 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, Ms. García 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 website where people can log instances of resource inequity.

But the new guidance may have unintended consequences, said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education initiatives at the American Enterprise Institute, a 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 Mr. Hess. “You are going to make already risk-averse state and local officials potentially even more risk-averse.”

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.

Staff Writer Lauren Camera contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2014 edition of Education Week as Civil Rights Office May Probe Inequities in K-12 Resources

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