Education Department Seeks to Level Public-Education Playing Field

Education Secretary Arne Duncan during a Feb. 4, 2014, appearance in Adelphi, Md.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The U.S. Education Department is taking the first steps to further ensure educational equity for disadvantaged students, including students of color and low-income students, by announcing a new guidance for states, school districts and schools.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Wednesday announced the guidance, which came in the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter (pdf), at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Public Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.


“Education is the great equalizer—it should be used to level the playing field, not to grow inequality,” Duncan said, according to a press release. “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.”

After the official announcement, Assistant Education Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon and the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Wade Henderson, held a press call to further discuss the guidance and its practical uses.

“Today the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance to educators to ensure that all students have equal access to the school resources they deserve and that are their right. Those resources include challenging coursework, extracurricular programs, strong teaching, school facilities, technology and instructional materials,” Lhamon explained on the call. “Our Dear Colleague letter sets out a clear framework for schools’, school districts’ and states’ satisfaction of the fundamental principle that all students, no matter their race, color or national origin, deserve a high-quality education.”

Lhamon stressed the need for opportunity gaps to continue to be closed, citing the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights’ most recent data showing that only two-thirds of Latino high school students and three-fifths of black high school students were attending schools that offered them a full range of math and science courses, leaving the remaining students poorly prepared for college and careers.


“This new guidance gives schools, school districts and states detailed information about their legal obligations, while also providing practical suggestions for how to perform proactive self-assessments to ensure compliance with the law. Highlights of some of our recent investigations in this area include increasing black and Latino students’ access to high-rigor coursework,” Lhamon added.

Issues that the OCR may consider include the following:

* Equal access to academic, co-curricular and extracurricular programs, such as Advanced Placement classes, arts and athletics;

* Equal access to good teachers and leaders who will be measured by criteria such as turnover, absenteeism, certification and training;

* Equal access to good school environments that are not overcrowded and are clean, with proper maintenance, lighting and ventilation and provide access for students with disabilities; and


* Equal access to educational technology and equipment, such as laptops and the Internet.

Joining Lhamon and Henderson on the call was Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg, whose school district was used as an example of a “terrific partner” in the Education Department’s venture to increase access to opportunity.


“For us as a school district, the importance of equity starts with our culture and starts with our values,” Boasberg told reporters on the call. “The highest honor that we can bestow upon our talented teachers and leaders is to ask them to lead and to serve in our highest-poverty schools where students have the greatest need … [it] is part of the way we honor their leadership and also get the highest-quality leaders in our highest-need schools.

“We were one of the first districts in the country over a decade ago to have an explicit salary differential for teachers who serve in our highest-poverty schools,” the educator added, speaking about his district’s model. “We have a program where we have a set of incentives at our highest-poverty schools for our teacher-leaders that’s both to attract the highest-quality teacher-leaders into those schools and incentivize teacher-leaders to remain at our highest-poverty schools.”


Other programs that the Denver school district has adapted include the end of “forced placements” of teachers into school, which Boasberg said was having a disproportionate effect on high-poverty schools, as well as a weighted-student-based budget that allots more funds for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Henderson, for his part, commended the department and its Office of Civil Rights for their steps at ensuring equity.


“This guidance affirms the authority of the Department of Education for the very first time to hold states accountable for depriving low-income school districts of resources. It also gives states a road map to correct disparities and avoid the burdensome litigation that families must pursue to enforce the rights of their children. The guidance is not a panacea for the deep-rooted disparities in our nation’s schools; it is a commitment from the federal government to continue delivering on its historic obligation to protect students from discrimination,” he said.

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