Ensuring Equal Access to Educational Resources for All Students

All of our students deserve equal access to educational resources like academic and extracurricular programs, strong teaching, facilities, technology, and instructional materials, no matter their race, color, or national origin.

That’s why my office, the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, released new guidance this week to educators to ensure that all students have equal access to the school resources that they not only deserve, but are their right under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Our most recent Civil Rights Data Collection shows that only two out of three Latino high school students and three out of five of black high school students attend schools that offer the full range of math and science courses, defined by OCR as Algebra I, geometry, Algebra II, calculus, biology, chemistry and physics. Since the start of this Administration, OCR has received more than 260 complaints related to resource equity. OCR has also initiated 33 investigations of states, school districts and schools. Here are two recent examples from our investigations to ensure that students of color could access the educational resources that are their right:

  • In a New Hampshire school district, black and Latino students were disproportionately under-enrolled in the district’s Advanced Placement courses. In an agreement with OCR, the district committed to consider increasing the numbers and types of courses offered and adding more teachers qualified to teach higher-level courses, among other remedies.
  • Earlier this year, in a California school district, OCR found that during the 2010-11 school year, black students in grades 3-6 were more than 4.5 times less likely than their white peers to be identified for the Gifted and Talented (GATE) program. To rectify this, the district agreed to revise GATE criteria and enrollment practices to eliminate barriers to equal access.

We released this guidance to give schools, school districts, and states detailed information on how OCR investigates resource disparities and to set a clear framework for educators on how to comply with the fundamental principle that all students, no matter their race, color, or national origin, deserve equal access to a high-quality education.

In remarks announcing the new guidance, Secretary Arne Duncan described numerous inequities in access to strong teaching, rigorous coursework, and quality facilities. “These facts, and this reality, compels us to act,” he said. “We cannot simply wring our hands and admire the problem.”

This guidance is just one part of President Obama’s larger commitment to equity, including the recently announced Excellent Educators for All initiative. It also builds on recommendations from the Equity and Excellence Commission’s 2012 “For Each and Every Child” report.

We released this guidance to end the tired practice of offering students of color less than we offer other students and to make sure that all of our students have access to the education they deserve.

Across the Department, my colleagues are also working to provide opportunities for students of color. The Department has recently announced grants to support underrepresented students in gifted and talented programs, to develop and evaluate new approaches that can expand college access, to help at-risk high school students prepare for college, and to boost college and career readiness for historically underserved students.

To view OCR’s fact sheet on resource equity in English, click here, and to view it in Spanish, click here. To view the press release, click here.

Catherine E. Lhamon is Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

Five New Facts from the Civil Rights Data Collection

Equity – the push to ensure strong educational opportunity for every student – drives everything we do at the U.S. Department of Education, and particularly in the Office for Civil Rights. From preschool enrollment to college attendance and completion, our office’s work is grounded in the belief that all students, regardless of race, gender, disability, or age, need a high-quality education to be successful.

Yet despite the gains we’ve made as a country, too many students are not receiving the education they deserve, and it is our collective duty to change that. Data is crucial to this work and helps us understand the extent of educational inequity throughout the U.S. and make informed decisions for action.

Since 1968, the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), formerly the Elementary and Secondary School Survey, has collected data on key education and civil rights issues in our nation’s public schools. Our office uses this data to focus our equity efforts and monitor the effectiveness of our programs. Earlier today we released new data from the 2011-12 collection, and for the first time since 2000, we collected data from every public school in the nation. This newest collection also includes data on preschool suspensions and expulsions for the first time as well.

Below are five striking new facts from the 2011-12 CRDC collection:

  • Access to preschool is not a reality for much of the country. About 40 percent of public school districts do not offer preschool, and where it is available, it is mostly part-day only. Of the school districts that operate public preschool programs, barely half are available to all students within the district.
  • Suspension of preschool children. Black students represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment but 42 percent of preschool students suspended once, and 48 percent of the preschool students suspended more than once.
  • Access to courses necessary for college is inequitably distributed. Eighty-one percent of Asian-American high school students and 71 percent of white high school students attend high schools where the full range of math and science courses are offered (Algebra I, geometry, Algebra II, calculus, biology, chemistry, physics). However, fewer than half of American Indian and Native-Alaskan high school students have access to the full range of math and science courses in their high schools.  Black students (57 percent), Latino students (67 percent), students with disabilities (63 percent), and English learner students (65 percent) also have diminished access to the full range of courses.
  • Access to college counselors is uneven. Nationwide, one in five high schools lacks a school counselor.
  • Disparities in high school retention.  Twelve percent of black students are retained in grade nine – about double the rate that all students are retained (six percent).  Additionally, students with disabilities served by IDEA and English learners make up 12 percent and five percent of high school enrollment, respectively, but 19 percent and 11 percent of students held back or retained a year, respectively.

Learn more about the CRDC at ocrdata.ed.gov.

Catherine E. Lhamon is assistant secretary for the Office for Civil Rights.

Ensuring Discipline that is Fair and Effective

Research shows that the use of suspensions has steadily climbed since the 1970s and that most suspensions today are for minor and non-violent incidents of misbehavior. These misbehaviors could be better addressed through measures that keep kids in school than by turning our kids away from the classroom door.  Further, federal data my office, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), collected for the 2011-12 school year indicates that students of color disproportionately bear the burden when schools use exclusion as punishment – they are disciplined more harshly and more frequently than other students, resulting in serious, negative educational consequences. For example, black students without disabilities represented 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once, and 36 percent of students expelled – but only 15 percent of students total in the OCR’s Civil Rights Data Collection. And over 50 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are black or Latino.

Holder and Duncan

Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder announced new school climate and discipline guidance today at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore.

Standing alone, disparate discipline rates like these do not necessarily indicate that a school or district is violating civil rights laws in every situation. Unfortunately, OCR investigations, which consider statistical data as part of a wide ranging examination of evidence, have revealed patterns of discrimination in certain cases.

Racial discrimination in school discipline is real, and it is a real problem. That’s why today, my office, OCR, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, released first-ever federal policy guidance aimed at addressing the problem of racial discriminatory discipline practices in elementary and secondary education. We sent our policy guidance, in the form of a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL), to help schools and districts identify and remedy discriminatory discipline practices. The guidance explains federal non-discrimination requirements under Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the legal approach the Departments will take when investigating complaints or compliance reviews alleging race or national origin discrimination in a school or district’s discipline practices.

The DCL also provides concrete examples to help schools and districts understand the potential civil rights violations that may arise when disciplining students. Importantly, the DCL provides a number of recommendations that schools and districts can implement to ensure that discipline is fair and effective. These recommendations align with a set of guiding principles the U.S. Department of Education developed and also released today.

I encourage all educators, from the classroom to state education agencies, to take time to review the discipline guidance and other resources released as part of the Department’s overall discipline package. I know that educators across the country are working to provide students with safe school environments where students can receive an excellent education. Teachers and principals make difficult, yet appropriate, decisions involving the use of school discipline each and every school day. And yet, in some of our schools and districts, the unfair and unnecessary use of suspensions and expulsions undermine this essential work. Students must be in school to be successful.

When schools exclude their students as punishment, then students not only miss valuable learning time but also too often lose a sense of belonging and engagement at school. This lesson in civic disengagement becomes further compounded when we send our students the message that they are being singled out or treated differently because of their race, ethnicity, or national origin.Exclusionary discipline practices place students at risk for experiencing a number of correlated educational, economic, and social problems, including school avoidance, increased likelihood of dropping out, and involvement with the juvenile justice system.

President Obama has challenged us to once again lead the world in college graduation rates.We cannot possibly hope to meet this challenge of preparing all students for college and career if we continually sideline some students with suspensions and expulsions rather than employing methods proven to work to teach kids responsibility for their actions and their learning, commitment to their peers in the educational process, and the value of school engagement. Let’s work together to support schools, to remove barriers to educational opportunity, and to ensure students’ safe passage through the critical and formative stages of their educational experience.

Catherine Lhamon is assistant secretary for the Office for Civil Rights.  

Visit www.ed.gov/school-discipline for more information.