Access to equal education for all Americans was never just a question of fairness. It is, now more than ever, a matter of survival. Students who get shortchanged in school will get shortchanged in life, as workers compete for good positions in a world of increasingly specialized and demanding jobs.
But recent research provides strong evidence that inequality remains.
A study released last week by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights showed that black students are significantly less likely than whites to attend a school that doesn’t offer a full range of math and science courses.
Black students are also more likely to have first-year teachers. And in districts with multiple schools, teacher salaries at the school with the most black and Latino students were $5,000 less than the salaries at the school with the least black and Latino students.
Black students are far more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled from school, the study showed. And the disparities begin far earlier than might be imagined – at the preschool level.
While black children make up 18 percent of preschool enrollment, wrote The New York Times, close to half of all preschool children who are suspended more than once are African-American.
Earlier this month, a group of academic experts in social science, education and law published uncannily similar findings about school discipline disparities.
Indiana University-Bloomington professor Russell Skiba, who headed that three-year national study, thinks the similarity of both reports’ conclusions adds to their credibility. It’s long been clear that there are disparities in the way minorities are treated in schools, he said. But I think it’s encouraging that we’re seeing so much attention to this now.
Skiba is particularly encouraged that the federal government is taking a serious look at school disciplinary problems. He’s also seen some hopeful signs that Indiana is taking the problem seriously.
Rep. Gregory Porter, D-Indianapolis, introduced a bill in this year’s legislature that would require schools to examine their rates of suspensions and expulsions and would allow the state to assist schools in developing more positive discipline policies.
The measure wasn’t seriously considered during the short 2014 session, but it was referred to a study committee, and Skiba is hopeful that it will get more attention next year.
Some districts have reframed their discipline codes to focus on school climate, Skiba said, noting that Fort Wayne Community Schools is one of the most progressive in the state on this issue.
Indiana’s focus on the issue is certainly merited.
The DOE reported that Indiana was one of five states that reported male suspension rates higher than the nation for every racial/ethnic group. The others were Florida, North Carolina, Rhode Island and South Carolina.
Far from making our schools safer or improving student behavior, Skiba said in releasing the results of the study that he headed, the steadily increasing use of suspension and expulsion puts students – especially students of color and other targeted groups – at an increased risk of academic disengagement, dropout and contact with juvenile justice.
Poverty, single-parent homes, other factors do contribute, Skiba added this week. But, he said, the disciplinary treatment students receive in school can even be traced ultimately to a life of crime.
It’s sometimes termed the school-to-prison pipeline, he said.
Blacks, Richard Gunderman wrote in The Atlantic magazine last year, are jailed six times as often as whites. And if current trends continue, nearly 1 in 3 black males born today can expect to be incarcerated at some point in life.
Maybe some of that begins in Indiana classrooms.