Federal

Civil Rights Office May Probe Inequities in K-12 Resources

By Alyson Klein — October 07, 2014 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Top Federal Adviser on Puerto Rico's Schools Declares: 'We Have to Build Trust'
Chris Soto heads an Education Department team providing technical assistance and support for the U.S. territory's public schools.
4 min read
Martin G. Brumbaugh School kindergarten teacher Nydsy Santiago teaches her students under a gazebo at a municipal athletic park in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 4, 2021.
Martin G. Brumbaugh School kindergarten teacher Nydsy Santiago teaches her students under a gazebo at a municipal athletic park in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 4, 2021.
Carlos Giusti/AP
Federal Schools Could Count Nonbinary Students Under Biden Proposal
The Civil Rights Data Collection for this school year could also revive questions about inexperienced teachers and preschool discipline.
6 min read
Image of a form with male and female checkboxes.
iStock/Getty
Federal 'Parents' Bill of Rights' Underscores Furor Over Curriculum and Transparency in Schools
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley's bill highlights how education issues like critical race theory will likely stay in the national political spotlight.
7 min read
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., says "it's time to give control back to parents, not woke bureaucrats."
Patrick Semansky/AP
Federal Opinion It’s Not Just the NSBA That’s Out of Touch. There’s a Bigger Problem
Those who influence educational policy or practice would do well to care about what parents and the public actually want.
4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty