States, Districts, and Schools Put on Notice to Achieve Education Equity

By Leticia Bustillos, Associate Director, Education Policy Project, NCLR

In 2001, then Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said:

The movement toward standards and accountability will only succeed if we ensure that all children have full and equal access to the educational resources necessary to achieve high standards. Indeed, raising standards without closing resource gaps may have the perverse effect of exacerbating achievement gaps and of setting up many children for failure.

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Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Photo: Wikipedia
Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Photo: Wikipedia

In the 13 years since this statement, the progress of children has steadily increased. Where once only half of all Latino children graduated from high school, today we see nearly three-quarters of them walking across stages to receive their diplomas. Yet disparities remain and many of our students attend schools desperately in need of repair, where too few advanced courses are offered and experienced teachers are in short supply. Today, however, states, districts, and schools were informed that ending these disparities is a must.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a “dear colleague letter” which makes clear that equity of access, equity of resources, and equity of opportunity are not just an aspiration but a goal to be achieved. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin. It also states that all entities receiving federal funds, including states and school systems, must equitably provide resources for all students. This includes access to rigorous coursework, effective teachers, safe school buildings, modern technology, and other elements that contribute to a high-quality and valuable educational experience.

“Education is the great equalizer—it should be used to level the playing field, not to grow inequality,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said upon announcing the release of the new guidance. “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.”

Evidence shows that Latino children are more likely to attend schools where resource disparities exist, considerably diminishing their chances to succeed beyond high school. The persistence of resource disparities in schools with high concentrations of low-income and minority children illuminate the need for leaders to reexamine our notions of what is equal and what is equitable. In communities where disparities persist, equal access to resources is simply not enough. Rather, state and local leadership must critically examine the specific needs of children and communities to determine the appropriate allocation of resources required to achieve equity of access and equity of opportunity.

So what does this mean for Latino children?

OCR unambiguously states its commitment to ensure that all students have equitable access to a quality education protected under the law. As a community we can raise awareness of disparities that persist and call attention to policies and practices that fuel those injustices. Where disparities exist, OCR will take proactive measures to investigate the evidence and determine whether policies and practices are in violation of Title VI. For the 12 million Latino students enrolled in schools across the nation, their right to a quality education is no longer a rhetorical aspiration, but a goal to be enforced. The responsibility to effectuate change rests with all of us, and today we have been put on notice.

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