Disparities in Achievement, Resources, and Student Discipline

Nearly six decades after Brown, gross disparities in academic achievement, resource allocation, and student discipline persist. High-quality public education is not available to all on equal terms, as the Supreme Court mandated in Brown.Simply put, the public school system in this country is failing millions of children--especially children of color, poor children, English learners, and those with disabilities. (Due to space, however, the focus of this article is on students protected from discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin.)

How bad is it? Only last year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that half of African-American and Latino fourth-graders lacked even a basic level of reading and literacy skills (compared to 22 percent of whites). In mathematics, the United States continues to lag behind our international competition. While we have seen some remarkable improvement in progress from below-basic to basic achievement, only 12 percent of African-American and 18 percent of Latino students have reached the levels of proficient or advanced (compared to 33 percent of whites).

These achievement disparities are exacerbated by the disproportionate dropout rates for these student populations. In 2009, African-American students dropped out of high school at an annual rate of 9.3 percent and Latino students at a rate of 17.6 percent, while their white counterparts exit school prematurely at a rate of 5.2 percent.

Race-based achievement gaps often correlate with significant shortfalls in the resources allocated for underprivileged communities. A 2011 Department report confirmed that school districts habitually underfund schools enrolling higher proportions of low-income and minority students. Based on 2008-09 school year data, the report found that from 42 percent to 46 percent of Title I schools (depending on school grade level) had perpupil expenditure levels that were below their district's average for non-Title I schools at the same grade level, and from 19 percent to 24 percent were more than 10 percent below the non-Title I school average.More recently, following a trend in state court litigation, a state trial court in Colorado determined that the state's school finance system was both inadequate and unequal, violating the state's constitutional guarantee for a thorough and uniform system of public education.

Another factor related to achievement gap is the persistence of race-based disparities in school disciplinary actions. According to the Department's Civil Rights Data Collection, in the 2008-09 school year, black students were suspended nearly three times more frequently than white students. In 2010, OCR opened compliance reviews in two school districts that reported suspending two-thirds of their African-American male students in a year. Latino students were suspended more than two times as often as whites. Students with disabilities, especially those of color, experience higher rates of suspension and are far more often subjected to physical seclusion or restraint. Although school discipline codes are facially neutral, their impact on these student groups has been injurious.