Civil Rights at School

Editorial Board, New York Times, October 29, 2014

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.

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