The Obama administration issued new guidance Wednesday to states and school districts aimed at reducing inequities in educational opportunity between students of color and their white peers.
“Even with all the good work that we see around the country, we also continue to see opportunity gaps that need correction,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education. She said the country needs to end “the tired practice of offering students of color less than we offer other students.”
To that end, the department’s 37-page guidance reminds states and school districts that they are required by federal law to provide the same quality of resources — strong teachers, facilities, rigorous coursework and extracurriculars — to students regardless of color and income. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says that while states and school districts do not have to provide the exact same resources to all schools, all students must have equal access to educational opportunity.
States and school districts violate the law not only when they intentionally treat students of color differently but also when their policies result in disparate impact, the government said.
According to recent data collected by the Department of Education, students of color are:
• More likely to attend schools with lower-quality facilities such as temporary, portable classrooms.
• More likely to be assigned to inexperienced, less-effective teachers who have not studied the subject they are teaching.
• Less likely to have access to high level coursework.
Black and Latino students account for close to 40 percent of high school students, but they constitute just a quarter of students taking Advanced Placement courses and exams and just 20 percent of enrollment in calculus classes. Just 68 percent of black students attend a high school that offers calculus.
By comparison, 81 percent of white high school students have the option of taking calculus, as do 87 percent of Asian students. American Indian and Native Alaskan students are much less likely than students in other ethnic groups to attend high schools that offer any AP classes or courses in calculus and physics.
Lhamon said her office has fielded more than 250 complaints about racial inequities since 2009, and the office has initiated 33 additional pending investigations.
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said U.S. public schools are “bastions” of “state-sponsored” inequality.
“We have two separate and unequal systems,” he said, referring to the high-poverty schools most students of color attend and the more affluent schools populated by their white peers. “The guidance is not a panacea for deep rooted disparity. ... It is a commitment from the federal government. And that is a welcome and noteworthy step forward.”