Marking the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown decision the Government Accounting Office has released a report on American public education. As befits a bean-counting agency, the report comes…
Marking the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown decision the Government Accounting Office has released a report on American public education. As befits a bean-counting agency, the report comes in the modest guise of a contribution to a technical accounting discussion, pointing out how “Better Use of Information Could Help Agencies…”, well, you get the picture.
But the report is more than an accounting exercise, as its title continues by stating that what its information can help agencies do is to “Identify Disparities and Address Racial Discrimination.” In fact, the GAO found that “The percentage of K-12 public schools in the United States with students who are poor and are mostly Black or Hispanic is growing.” Sixty years after Brown America’s traditional public schools are resegregating.
The defendants in the Brown case argued that although their schools were segregated by race, the separate educational opportunities provided were equal, separate but equal, as they said, following the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. In Brown, however, the Court found that “Segregation . . . deprive[s] [Black children] of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system.” The Brown decision, relying on somewhat controversial research about the psychological effects of government-sanctioned segregation, concluded that its mere existence was damaging to Black students.
Now comes the GAO, with its analysis of “better information,” finding that America’s schools are not only in violation of Brown, they are increasingly in violation of Plessy as well. The educational opportunities offered by our schools where separate, and they are increasingly separate, are decidedly not equal.
Before we go any further, in the spirit of GAO, here’s a technical note: The categories used in the report are those of the U.S. Department of Education. There are the racial and ethnic categories—White, Black, Hispanic, Asian and Other—and the economic category defined by the eligibility of school children for free or reduced-price lunches. There are very serious problems with the racial and ethnic categories. “Asian,” in particular, is high problematic, throwing together people with Chinese ancestry with people of Sri Lankan descent; Filipinos and Iranians, and so forth. “Hispanics” can be of Cuban, Mexican, Dominican or Argentine derivation, for example, regardless of race. “Black” refers to people with sub-Saharan African ancestry (but not the very dark people from Kerala or indigenous Australians) and White is practically a residual category.
These seemingly technical difficulties are deeply implicated in America’s problems with race and racism. The absurdities of the Asian and Hispanic categories are irrelevant. The underlying point is that what matters in these United States is whether or not one is visibly and predominantly descended from enslaved Africans. If so, one is likely to find, for example, that police pay more attention to you than to others; that employers are less likely to give you a chance at a job and if they do they will pay you less than others, and that it will be difficult to find housing outside areas of concentrated poverty.
As for economic categorization, the White median household income is $57,400. The median income for Hispanic households is $42,700. The Black median household income is $35,500. As the income eligibility line for reduced-price meals for a family of four is $46,000, most Black school children are included in the group eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, as are the majority of Hispanic school children.
In other words, saying that a Black school child is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch is practically redundant.
But you plow with the mules that you’ve got, so here we go:
In addition to finding that American schools are resegregating, GAO found that schools that were over 75 percent Black or Hispanic AND the students of which were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch “offered fewer math, science, and college preparatory courses.” They are separate, but offer very unequal educational opportunities. White middle class students attend schools with more math, science and college preparatory courses, schools for Black and Hispanic students from impoverished families offer fewer.
Which brings us to the fine print of Appendix II of the report: “Students Enrolled in Advanced Placement Courses, by Race.”
Advanced Placement courses are the crown jewels of American education, qualifying students for college study and in many cases giving credit for basic college courses while still in high school. GAO divided high schools into four categories: Low-Poverty and 0 to 25 percent Black or Hispanic; High-Poverty and 75 to 100 percent Black or Hispanic; All Other Schools and the subset of schools 90 to 100 percent High Poverty and Black and Hispanic.
Let us look at the first and last of these groups: the privileged and the underprivileged. 24 percent of students in the middle class schools with low poverty rates and low Black and Hispanic enrollment enrolled in at least one AP course. These schools were 80 percent White, seven percent Asian, six percent Hispanic, and four percent Black. Within that group, 43 percent of Asian students and 24 percent of White students enrolled in at least one AP course, as compared to 17 percent of Hispanic and just 15 percent of Black students.
Now for the highly segregated schools serving students from impoverished families, schools with 90 percent poverty rates and 90 percent Black and Hispanic enrollment. These schools were 53 percent Black, 44 percent Hispanic, one percent White, and one percent Asian. Just 12 percent of students in those schools—half the proportion of the other group—enrolled in at least one AP course. 18 percent of Asian students in the high poverty schools and 14 percent of White students enrolled in at least one AP course, as compared to 14 percent of Hispanic and just 10 percent of Black students.
The chances that an Asian student in a school serving underprivileged students will enroll in an AP class are much less than half those that an Asian student in a middle class school. That for White students falls nearly in half, from 24 percent to 14 percent, for Hispanic students from 17 percent to 14 percent and for Black students the opportunity to take these gateway courses declines from 15 percent in a middle class school to 10 percent in a ghetto school.
Simply moving from a school high-poverty, highly segregated school to a low-poverty school with a student body more closely representative in racial and ethnic terms to the general population can double the opportunity to enroll in an AP course for all students. This doesn’t mean it always happens; we see this all the time with gifted and talented courses that are also often segregation by another name. At the same time, more opportunities means more opportunities for all.
As a note: It is striking that White students in schools reserved for underprivileged students enroll in AP courses at a rate slightly below that of Black students in middle class schools. Perhaps there is a tendency for administrators of schools with overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic student populations to practice within-school segregation.
GAO was also interested in the math courses offered by different categories of schools. It found, for example, that 79 percent of middle class schools offered 7th and 8th grade Algebra, while only 49 percent of high poverty with 75 percent to 100 percent Black and Hispanic enrollment schools did so. Similarly, 71 percent of middle class, but only 29 percent of the high poverty schools offered calculus. Interestingly, among the schools serving high poverty students, 75 percent or more of whom were Black or Hispanic, 30 percent of the traditional schools offered calculus, but only 17 percent of charter schools did so.
Some have argued that family, neighborhood and “cultural” factors determine a student’s educational achievement. The GAO, on the other hand, found that “schools that were highly isolated by poverty and race generally had fewer resources and disproportionately more disciplinary actions than other schools.” Students needing relatively more educational resources because of, say, family, neighborhood and “cultural” factors receive fewer, a situation aggravated by school discipline policies and actions that have been shown to be racially discriminatory.
In other words, the GAO has found that educational opportunity depends on where you live. Schools in middle class areas offer more AP, algebra and calculus courses and enroll much higher percentages of students in those courses than schools serving poor kids, of whatever race or ethnicity. As schools, and communities, become increasingly segregated, educational opportunities become increasingly unequal: more separate, less equal. Which is the consequence of a public education system that determines opportunity based on zip code, and not on what families, given high-quality data and choice regardless of income, decide to access.
We know how important college-preparatory education in advancing economic and social mobility, especially for Black, Latino, and children from poor households. That we continue segregating those children from those opportunities when it possible to provide it to them are the result of deliberate decisions to exclude them from better lives for themselves and their communities.
What is to be done? In accord with its mission, the GAO recommends that the departments of Education and Justice track data more closely and analyze it more comprehensibly. There are other things that should be done. State and local officials responsible for the disparities found by the GAO should remedy them—should remedy them as soon as possible before more Black and Latino children in high poverty schools have their future’s stolen from them.