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Arne Duncan Guidance Calls for Equal Technology Access Across Schools

By guest blogger Sam Atkeson

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is calling on school leaders to address the resource gap in K-12 schools, a task that he says includes improving access to technology among poor and minority students.

In a "Dear Colleague" letter distributed recently, the Department of Education urged states, districts and schools to proactively evaluate how they allocate resources—such as academic programs, extracurricular activities, building facilities and technology—and outlined the role of the Department's Office for Civil Rights in investigating potentially discriminatory practices.

The letter comes just months after data collected by OCR exposed vast resource disparities in school systems across the nation, and the document marks the first guidance on the issue of resource equity released under the Obama administration, Education Week's Alyson Klein reported on the Politics K-12 blog last week.

Disparities in the level of access to educational resources often reflect the racial demographics of schools, the guidance states, "with schools serving the most students of color having lower quality or fewer resources than schools serving largely white populations even within the same district."

And while technology gaps along the lines of race and income are in fact narrowing at a national level, the guidance notes that "disparities persist regarding the number and quality of computers or mobile devices in the classroom, speed of internet access, and the extent to which teachers and staff are adequately prepared to teach students using these technologies."

The OCR will investigate whether all students within a school or district have comparable access to the technological tools given to teachers and students, regardless of race. It will also compare how those tools are supported and implemented.

Additionally, for situations in which the use of technology outside of school hours is a "necessary or presumed aspect of what is expected from students," OCR will investigate the extent to which districts support students who do not have access to those technologies at home. 

Still, it remains unclear how the guidance—and any potential action by OCR moving forward—will impact the availability of resources to disadvantaged students.

If a district's allocation of technology is found to be in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which prohibits "discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin, in programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance"—OCR may require the purchase of "additional textbooks, computers, or other materials for schools that have fallen behind in the quality or quantity of these resources".

The guidance acknowledges that gaps in resource comparability cannot be remedied immediately, but makes clear that "lack of funding is not a defense for noncompliance with federal civil rights obligations."

See Alyson Klein's piece in the Politics K-12 blog for a range of reactions to the letter—including praise from civil rights advocates, and unease from those who fear it will stifle the implementation of programs that cannot be funded district-wide. 

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