From The New York Times
The Department of Education Offers States Guidance on Equality
Earlier this month, Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, sent what he described as “guidance” to states and school districts reminding them of their obligation to provide schoolchildren with equal resources regardless of race.
The guidance, in the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter, invoked the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision in warning that school districts that shunted minority kids to inferior schools could be held accountable under federal civil rights law.
He had numbers to back up the threat. The letter noted, for example, that schools serving the most students of color were less likely to have high-level courses and that nearly one in five black high school students attend high schools that do not offer Advanced Placement courses — a higher proportion than any other racial group.
Only two-thirds of black students attend a high school that offers calculus, compared with 81 percent of white students and 87 percent of Asian students. Students of color are also more likely to attend schools with lower-quality facilities, like temporary classrooms.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights currently has 40 open investigations prompted by concerns that districts had shortchanged minority students in access to qualified teachers, programs for the gifted and talented, science classes, college and career readiness courses and other resources. In addition, the department is monitoring compliance agreements with 18 other districts that have adopted plans to redress inequities.
The guidance document explains the law and shows districts how to identify “chronic and widespread racial disparities” in instruction and school facilities and to remedy these failings.
The warnings come just when the nation is seeking to improve the quality of its public schools and give students a better shot at college and the highly skilled jobs required in the new economy. Minorities are especially disadvantaged because they are less likely than their white peers to be exposed to demanding courses that prepare them for a highly competitive world.
The new guidance rightly focuses on teacher quality and says the department’s investigations will seek to expose school districts that unjustifiably provide minority children with ineffective, poorly trained teachers.
Policies don’t have to be intentionally discriminatory to be illegal; race-neutral but ill-considered strategies can also have a terrible effect on minority students.