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 appears to be the first since U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued guidance 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.
On Nov. 25, the OCR notified the Schenectady and Middletown school districts in upstate New York that it plans to probe complaints filed last December by both districts’ superintendents.
The superintendents argue that “the funding structure implemented by New York State results in discrimination against school districts with predominantly non-white student populations, English-language learner students and students with disabilities.”
They originally filed the grievance against the State of New York, New York State Legislature, Governor of New York, state comptroller, New York State Board of Regents, and New York State Education Department, but OCR only has jurisdiction over the latter two.
According to a press release from Schenectady City Schools, federal officials told the superintendents that this is the first time the civil rights office would be considering a complaint of this kind from a school district.
“Yes, I’d say it’s groundbreaking,” Larry Spring, superintendent of the Schenectady City School District said in the press release. “I was cautiously optimistic that OCR would open it and investigate. It’s the right thing to do. Hopefully, change will result from it.”
To be sure, the OCR has investigated allegations of resource inequity before, including inequitable access to strong teachers, college-preparatory coursework, technology, and facilities.
Since 2009, for example, the civil rights office has resolved with agreements 17 cases involving allegations of discrimination based on race regarding access to rigorous curriculum, college-ready courses, or gifted and talented programs, including in Lee County, Ala.; Lynchburg, Va.; Cleveland, Ohio; Grand Rapids, Mich., and others.
But the Education Department released the guidance letter in October—it previously hadn’t released guidance on this topic for nearly 13 years—to remind states, districts, and schools of their responsibilities to provide all students with equal access to educational resources amid a dramatically changing educational landscape.
The new 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 law suit 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 about how that money is being disbursed shows that the amount of Foundation Aid owed per pupil is 2.3 times greater in high-need districts than in wealthy districts.
The 10,000-student Schenectady and 7,000-student Middletown school districts are among the 8 percent of the school districts with minority-majority student populations. Nationally for the first time this fall, the overall number of Latino, African-American, and Asian students in public K-12 classrooms is expected to surpass the number of non-Hispanic whites.
“It’s a fact that school districts with higher concentrations of minority students are systemically underfunded,” said Spring in the press release. “I can’t see how any agency will investigate this and find it acceptable.”
The civil rights office hasn’t set a timeline for the investigation.