Data Shows Persistent Racial Disparities in U.S. Schools, King Calls for Tough ESSA Equity Rules
Education Secretary John King Monday drew a line from newly released data on racial disparities in school discipline and access to rigorous courses to the need for tough, equity-focused regulations under the Every Student Succeeds Act.
This year’s Civil Rights Data Collection, which covers the 2013-14 year, found black boys and girls in kindergarten through 12th grade are 3.8 times more likely than their white peers to have at least one out-of-school suspension. It’s just as bad in preschool, where the youngest black children are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended as white peers.
For the first time, the department also collected data on chronic absenteeism, which showed students of color and disabled students are more likely to miss more than a dozen days of school per year.
“When we deny some students access to a high-quality education, we all lose out,” King said on a call with reporters Monday. “Our systemic failure to educate some groups of children as well as others tears at the moral fabric of the nation.”
King, who often points to the civil rights history of the federal K-12 education law, said the data should be a wake-up call to those who oppose his department’s efforts to implement new school spending and accountability regulations under the Every Student Succeeds Act.
“If there was any question about whether we have further to go to make good on the promise of a quality education for every child, these data should serve as a sobering reality check,” he added.
The education department says its proposals will ensure equity for students of color and others who have been historically left behind in schools; congressional Republicans say they’re a dramatic executive overreach.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the education committee, said the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, members of a rule making committee and lawmakers who crafted the law have said the department's school spending proposal in particular is "plainly against the law."
"In writing the new law, Congress debated and explicitly rejected a national school board run from Washington, D.C., and prescriptive mandates on state and local spending levels that could create incentives that hurt the very students the department claims to help and punish school districts taking innovative approaches to help low-income children," he said in a statement to The 74.
Critics have accused the department of going too far or asking too much, but officials “will not compromise away” the rights of all students to get a great education, King said.
American Indian, Latino, Native Hawaiian, and multiracial boys (but not girls) were also suspended at disproportionate rates. Black students are 1.9 times more likely to be expelled than their white peers, and 2.3 times more likely to be referred to law enforcement.
Those discipline rates may have something to do with the adults present in schools educating large numbers of children of color. Just over half, 51 percent, of high schools with over three-quarters black or Latino students have a sworn law enforcement officer, as compared to 42 percent of all high schools. The department collected data on law enforcement officers, including school resource officers, for the first time this year.
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In addition to the disparities in discipline, students of color are also less likely to attend schools that offer advanced coursework, including AP courses, calculus, physics, chemistry and algebra II. Black and Latino students attending schools that offer the tougher classes are disproportionately less likely to be enrolled in them.
Enrollment in gifted and talented programs also continues to be disproportionately low for black and Latino students: they’re 42 percent of students enrolled at schools that offer gifted programs, but only 28 percent of the students actually enrolled.
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Despite the continued disparities, there is some good news: the overall number of suspensions is down by 20 percent from the previous data release, which was conducted in the 2011-12 year. The Obama administration has for several years focused on discipline disparities and the school-to-prison pipeline: the Office of Civil Rights has settled 664 cases involving racial disparities in school discipline since the start of the Obama administration, said Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights.
“To have already seen this overall reduction in this suspension rate is incredible and immensely gratifying to me,” Lhamon said.
Districts nationally have turned to more restorative justice practices, which focus on repairing harm rather than punishing offenders by banishing them from school.
The drop is a “tremendous testament to our educators’ commitment to making sure students are in school and can learn,” she added.
Further reductions in suspensions are likely in future years, particularly in preschool, which the administration first highlighted in 2014, the year of this data collection, Lhamon said.
The disparity in discipline rates by race, though, remains “the hardest nut to crack,” she said.
New Data on Absenteeism, Corrections System
The Office of Civil Rights for the first time collected data on chronic absenteeism and access to educational options in jails and prisons.
Nationally, 13 percent of all students are considered chronically absent, meaning they miss 15 or more days of school per year.
At the high school level, more than a fifth of American Indian and Alaska Native (26 percent), Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (25 percent), black (22 percent), multiracial (21 percent), and Latino (20 percent) students are chronically absent. Students with disabilities are more likely to be chronically absent than their non-disabled peers at both the high school and elementary school level.
The information “suggests we have a lot of work to do,” King said. “Even the best teacher can’t be successful with students who aren’t in class,” he said.
The survey also found that access to education programs in the corrections system — prisons, jails and youth residential facilities — also fell short of offerings in the public school system. The facilities reported offering on average 26 hours of educational opportunities per week during their regular school year but 21 percent reported offering less than the standard 180 days of school per year. About a quarter offer more than 230 days a year, essentially year-round programming.