U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan
Photo credit: Ralph Alswang (CC-By-ND 2.0)
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan  Photo credit: Ralph Alswang (CC-By-ND 2.0)
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan
Photo credit: Ralph Alswang (CC-By-ND 2.0)

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a “Dear Colleague” letter to school districts and states warning them that they can investigate states, districts and schools that are not doing “enough” to make sure there is equal access to education resources like quality facilities and AP courses.

The letter provides “guidance” on the issue of resource equity.

“Education is the great equalizer—it should be used to level the playing field, not to grow inequality,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said as he announced the guidance at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Public Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. “That means that all students regardless of their race, zip code or family income should have equal access to educational resources—whether it’s effective teaching, challenging coursework, facilities with modern technology or a safe school environment. Many states and districts have demonstrated leadership in taking steps to tackle these difficult problems. Unfortunately, in too many communities, especially those that are persistently underserved, serious gaps remain. This guidance aims to fix that by providing school leaders with information to identify and target inequities in the distribution of school resources.”

The Office of Civil Rights is not looking at just blatant or intentional discrimination, but also “facially neutral policies” that are not intended to discriminate, but “have an unjustified, adverse disparate impact on students based on race, color or national origin.”  They outlined several areas that would be under scrutiny in the letter.

  • Courses, academic programs and extracurricular activities.  Programs such as Head State and preschool programs, AP courses, International Baccalaureate courses, gifted and talented programs, career and technical education programs, language immersion programs, online & distance learning opportunities, performing and visual arts, athletics and extracurricular activities.  They will also examine whether minority students have access to the “full panoply of high school courses” that prepare students for college and careers.  They will also examine services and supports for students with disabilities.
  • Strong teaching, leadership and support: The Office of Civil Rights when investigating low-performing states, school districts and schools will look at teacher effectiveness data, the stability of the work force, teacher qualifications and experience, and whether the school district offers effective, well-prepared and stable school leadership.  This also includes analyzing access to “high-quality non-instructional and other support staff in schools.”
  • School facilities.  The Office for Civil Rights will investigate the physical environment of school facilities.  Are they structurally sound and well maintained.  Beyond that they will also examine the types and design of facilities – “the relative quantity and quality of specialized spaces such as laboratories, auditoriums and athletic facilities.  They state not every school has to have the same type and array of facilities, but whether districts “are providing equal access to comparable facilities.”
  • Technology and instructional materials: Library resources, computer programs, mobile applications, and textbooks.  “OCR considers how instructional materials vary between schools in number, quality, and accessibility and whether they are equally available to students without regard to race, color, or national origin.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the President of the National Education Association, released a statement applauding this move by the department.  “We know what equity looks like.  Walk into the most impressive, gorgeous public school you can find with a theater department, a chemistry lab with up-to-date equipment, and a library full of books.  You know those schools.  They are the best schools in the world.  Equity means every school should look like those schools,” Garcia said.

Not everyone sees this as a positive development citing it as another example of federal overreach into education.

“The U. S. Department of Education is cracking another whip to force states and local school districts to comply with federal edicts. The mandates of Race to the Top and the No Child Left Behind waiver (such as federally crafted teacher-evaluation systems) will now be enforced with threats of civil-rights sanctions,” Jane Robbins, senior fellow with American Principles Project, told Caffeinated Thoughts in an email.  “It’s particularly interesting, in light of the nationwide controversy about the College Board’s new, leftist AP US History course, that the Department will be forcing local districts and schools to increase AP participation (apparently with little regard for a student’s academic readiness for an AP course). With Race to the Top, Common Core, politicized AP courses, and now threats of costly litigation, local control over education is quickly ebbing away.”

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