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Federal Civil Rights Officials: Districts Must Ensure Equal Access to Resources

Crossposted from Alyson Klein at Politics K-12.

Months after data collected by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights showed deep disparities between poor and minority students and their more advantaged peers when it comes to educational resources, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is putting school districts and states on notice that the office for civil rights can investigate states, districts, and even schools that aren't doing enough to ensure equal access on everything from high-quality facilities to Advanced Placement courses.

The department outlined OCR's role in ensuring equal access to resources in a letter sent today to states, school districts, and schools. The "Dear Colleague" letter marks the first guidance on the issue of resource equity released during the Obama administration. 

Duncan talked up the guidance in a speech today to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's Public Policy Conference. 

"Education is the great equalizer—it should be used to level the playing field, not to grow inequality," he said, according to prepared remarks. "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 letter makes it clear to school districts, states, and educators that OCR can look into resources disparities in a range of areas, including: 

  • Equal access to educational opportunities, such as Advanced Placement courses, gifted and talented programs, college-preparatory programs, and extra-curricular activities. There could be many schools and states that fall under scrutiny—Of schools serving the highest percentages of black and Latino students, only 66 percent and 74 percent offer chemistry and Algebra 2, respectively, according to the federal civil rights data collection. 
  • Equal access to qualified teachers and school leaders, as measured by factors such as turnover, absenteeism, professional development, and whether or not the teacher is leading a subject in which he or she holds a degree. Schools have a long way to go in this area, too, according to the federal data collection. Nearly 7 percent of black students attend schools where more than 20 percent of teachers hadn't yet met all state certification requirements. That figure was four times higher than for white students. OCR can also look into whether states and districts are providing poor and minority kids with their fair share of qualified support staff, such as school psychologists, guidance counselors and paraprofessionals, according to the letter
  • Equal access to school facilities. OCR can consider factors such as overcrowding, lighting, and accessibility for students with disabilities, as well as the quality of areas such as athletic facilities and science labs.
  • Equal access to technology, including laptops, tablets, the internet, and instructional materials, such as calculators and library books. 

In investigating instances of resource inequality, OCR takes into consideration whether districts and states are working to address the problem. The guidance advises states, schools and districts, to carefully consider any hard data on resource equity—including the data contained in the OCR collection. And it recommends school and district leaders do a careful evaluation of resources available, and address any inequities right away, giving priority to the students most in need. Districts and states should also consider outreach to parents and students—including giving them an opportunity to voice concerns about resource disparities. 

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