Education as a Civil Right: We Have a Long Way to Go

By Rhonda Bryant

Today, the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights released new data on the condition of our nation’s schools with regard to racial and ethnic disparities in access to quality education and fair treatment of students. We applaud the courage of the Obama Administration in requiring all of the country’s 97,000 school districts to report this data, and for making this data publicly available for the first time in almost 15 years. While it reveals troubling trends nationally, it provides an opportunity for both serious discussion and timely action.

The data reveal that all along the educational continuum, students of color are in a position of extreme disadvantage in our country’s public schools. They are far more likely to be retained in grade, to miss precious school time because of excessive suspensions and expulsions, and less likely to be prepared for the rigors of college because fewer courses are offered in their schools and fewer experienced teachers are in their classrooms. Children of color are also less likely to attend college because there are fewer guidance counselors in their schools to provide the supports necessary to get them prepared and enrolled.

A few facts:

  • Native-Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, American Indian and Native-Alaskan students were held back a year in kindergarten at nearly twice the rate of white kindergarten students.
  • In ninth grade, Hispanic, American Indian and Native-Alaskan students are retained in grade at twice the rate of whites, while black students are retained at three times the rate of whites.
  • While black children make up 18 percent of preschool children, 60 percent of the children suspended from preschool more than once are black.
  • Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. American Indian and Native-Alaskan students are also disproportionately suspended and expelled.
  • While black students represent 16% of student enrollment, they represent 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students subjected to a school-related arrest.
  • Schools with the highest black and Latino student enrollments reported 13 percent of their teaching staff in the first or second year of teaching in any school compared to 8 percent in schools with the lowest black and Latino student enrollments.
  • A quarter of high schools with the highest black and Latino enrollment don’t offer Algebra II; a third of these schools don’t offer chemistry. Less than half of Native-American high school students have access to the full range of math and science courses in their high school.
  • Black and Latino students represent 23 percent of the students enrolled in gifted and talented programs, compared to 40 percent of black and Latino enrollment in schools offering gifted and talented programs.
  • Black and Latino students represent 37 percent of high school enrollment, but only comprise 26 percent of students taking advanced placement courses, 26 percent of students taking AP exams, and 19 percent of students receiving a qualifying score of 3 or above on AP exams.
  • English language learners (ELL) represent 5 percent of all public high school students but only 2 percent of those taking either the SAT or ACT.

The data about the current condition of our schools flies in the face of our national goal to ensure all children receive a quality education from the earliest years through high school to prepare them for college and careers. As our nation becomes more ethnically diverse, the outcomes will only become more grim and the disparities more glaring if we fail to act quickly and purposefully to improve our nation’s schools. No matter where they live, all children should have equitable access to experienced teachers, rigorous courses, counseling supports, and expectations for behavior that is not tainted by racial bias.

The road to equitable schools is not one that can be traveled overnight. There are many issues to be resolved along the way. How should dollars be reallocated for high poverty schools? How can we ensure more experienced teachers are in high-poverty schools? What student supports should be in every high-poverty school? What role do states and the federal government play in supporting high-poverty schools and school districts? How can school districts and other youth-serving systems work together to provide quality supports to students and their families?

Some schools and school systems are already making significant strides in answering some of these questions. By learning from these exemplary approaches and trying new things, we can close the gaps in quality education for students of color. States and districts must be simultaneously pushed and supported to look at:

  • funding formulas and the gaps between high-poverty and low-poverty schools;
  • opportunities to participate in courses that prepare students for college and careers;
  • access to effective teachers and opportunities to incentivize teacher placements; and
  • fair and appropriate discipline practices that do not disproportionately penalize students of color, low-income students, or students with disabilities.  

The following summary fact sheets are available on the Department of Education website: