The Office of Civil Rights for President Barack Obama’s Education Department sent out an unusual letter Wednesday to America’s school districts warning them that they are legally obligated to make sure the policies and practices of their districts do not discriminate against students of color.
Citing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs that receive federal funding, the Office of Civil Rights for the Education Department warned that it will “investigate and analyze the evidence found under both theories of discrimination — intentional discrimination and disparate impact — to ensure that students are not subjected to unlawful discrimination.”
The letter is an unusually dramatic and aggressive gesture from the Education Department, indicating the department and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are putting not only the districts but also the students, parents and advocates of color in those districts on notice that the federal government is watching and will take action to support Black and Latino students.
“Education is the great equalizer,” Duncan said in a statement Wednesday prepared for the Public Policy Conference of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in Washington. “It should be used to level the playing field, not to grow inequality.”
For Black and Latino parents and communities across the country who have long noted that the predominantly white schools in their areas get better teachers, facilities and resources, the letter from the Education Department is like a love note, letting them know that these inequities are a violation of the law — even if they are not intentional.
This could prove to be a powerful tool for communities seeking justice. A simple phone call to Washington might be all they need to initiate a federal investigation that might bring about major change. While this power has been in their hands for the past 50 years, the Education Department seems to be indicating that it is perhaps more interested than previous administrations in investigating districts that are violating the law.
“I think they have taken a muscular approach to actually enforce the nation’s civil rights laws on behalf of students,” Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told the New York Times. Continuing to collect data, he added, “allows us to challenge these practices in schools in a way that buttresses our chances of success.”
For those districts that need an education on inequity, the 25-page letter reads like a primer on the brutality of systemic racism in public schools — perhaps America’s most damaging form of child abuse.
“Many States, school districts, and schools across the Nation have faced shrinking budgets that have made it increasingly difficult to provide the resources necessary to ensure a quality education for every student,” states the letter, written by Catherine E. Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights. “Chronic and widespread racial disparities in access to rigorous courses, academic programs, and extracurricular activities; stable workforces of effective teachers, leaders, and support staff; safe and appropriate school buildings and facilities; and modern technology and high-quality instructional materials further hinder the education of students of color today … I highlight the negative effects these inequalities can have on student learning and encourage school officials to assess regularly disparities in educational resources in order to identify potential — and where it exists to end — unlawful discrimination, particularly in districts with schools where the racial compositions vary widely.”
After describing the many benefits that students derive from being in higher level courses, the letter points out that “almost one in five black high school students attend a high school that does not offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses, a higher proportion than any other racial group.”
After listing the many ways that students benefit from having the most experienced, talented teachers, Lhamon says “schools serving the most black and Latino students are 1.5 times more likely to employ teachers who are newest to the profession (who are on average less effective than their more experienced colleagues) as compared to schools serving the fewest of those students.”
After talking about the ways the condition of facilities influences student learning, the letter notes that “schools with the most students of color are more likely to have temporary, portable buildings and permanent buildings with poorer building conditions, including poorly maintained exterior features such as lighting and walls.”
Lhamon points out how much teachers are helped and supported by technology and high quality tools, but says “while gaps by race and income in student access to technology are narrowing at a national level, disparities persist regarding the number and quality of computers or mobile devices in the classroom, speed of Internet access, and the extent to which teachers and staff are adequately prepared to teach students using these technologies.”
How has the system over the years become so inequitable? Lhamon addresses that, too.
She said school districts rely heavily on property tax revenue for funding schools, which leads to racial disparities.
“Such disparities may be indicative of broader discriminatory policies or practices that, even if
facially neutral, disadvantage students of color,” she writes. “For example, teachers in high schools serving the highest percentage of black and Latino students during the 2011-12 school year were paid on average $1,913 less per year than their colleagues in other schools within the same district that serve the lowest percentage of black and Latino students.”
While it’s clear that a district is violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act if it intentionally discriminates against students of color, Lhamon’s letter notes that “school districts also violate Title VI if they adopt facially neutral policies that are not intended to discriminate based on race, color, or national origin, but do have an unjustified, adverse disparate impact on students based on race, color, or national origin.”
Lhamon offers some encouragement to districts that fear they may be in violation of the law, saying districts that proactively identify racial disparities and implement a plan to remedy them are “more likely” to be in compliance with the law.