Child Watch® Column: “The Opportunity Gap”

Release Date: May 9, 2014

Marian Wright Edelman

In the spring of 1954, like so many Black families, mine waited anxiously for the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. My father and I talked about it and what it would mean for my future and the future of millions of other Black children who were attending segregated but unequal Black schools. He died the week before Brown was decided. But I and many other children were able, in later years, to walk through the new and heavy doors that Brown slowly and painfully opened.

It was a transforming time that set into motion a spate of other challenges to Jim Crow laws and yet sixty years after that historic May decision the doors to true educational equality have never fully opened wide enough for millions of American children to walk through especially those living in poverty. The most recent findings from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), called the “richest, fullest” collection so far measuring education access and equity in our nation’s public schools, show many children are still receiving an unequal education.

This is the unfinished work of the Civil Rights Movement.

The new Office for Civil Rights data cover the 2011-2012 school year and are the first universal data collection since 2000, with information about all 97,000 schools in the nation’s 16,500 school districts serving 49 million students. Some information was collected for the first time, including one of the most startling findings: new data on preschool suspensions that show Black preschoolers are 18 percent of children enrolled in preschool programs in public schools, but 48 percent of children suspended more than once. While the data show only six percent of the districts offering preschool in public schools reported that they had suspended preschoolers, there is something terribly wrong when we are suspending any children from preschool in the first place. We now know Black children are more likely to be pushed out of school before they’ve even made it to kindergarten, and other numbers in the recent OCR release confirm those disparities do not go away.

Overall, Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than White students. Boys receive more than two out of three suspensions, but Black girls are suspended at higher rates than girls of any other race or ethnicity and higher rates than most boys. Students with disabilities (those served by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) also are more than twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension as students without disabilities. And inequities in school discipline continue right up through the most consequential responses: Black students represent 16 percent of student enrollment but make up 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of school-related arrests.

These differences in discipline can’t be explained simply by differences in student behavior. The Equity Project at Indiana University has reviewed the research on the role of student behavior and characteristics in disparate suspension rates and found that in fact schools and districts that have taken seriously their responsibility to educate all of their students have seen significant improvements by adjusting the policies and practices of adults. Both Buffalo, New York Public Schools and Denver, Colorado Public Schools are heralded as examples of school systems’ ability to change to better serve students. The Children’s Defense Fund and AASA, the School Superintendents Association, have been funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies to work with ten school districts from Texas to Wisconsin to Pennsylvania whose leaders are committed to reforming their school discipline policies to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline and address racial disparities. 

Children’s unequal chances in school go well beyond discipline. Black, Latino, American Indian, and Native Alaskan students have less access to experienced teachers than White students. While most teachers are certified, nearly half a million students nationwide attend schools where 60 percent or fewer teachers meet all state certification and licensure requirements, and racial disparities are particularly acute in schools where uncertified and unlicensed teachers are concentrated. Black students are more than four times as likely and Latino students are twice as likely as White students to attend schools where 80 percent or fewer teachers meet these requirements. There are also teacher salary disparities: Nearly one in four districts with two or more high schools reports a teacher salary gap of more than $5,000 between high schools with the highest and the lowest Black and Latino student enrollments.

All students don’t have equal opportunities to take the most challenging courses to prepare them for college and career. While 81 percent of Asian American and 71 percent of White high school students attend high schools where the full range of math and science courses are offered (Algebra I, geometry, Algebra II, calculus, biology, chemistry, and physics), fewer than half of American Indian and Native Alaskan high school students have access to the full range in their schools, and Black students, Latino students, students with disabilities, and English language learner students also all have less access. Black and Latino students are also disproportionately less likely to be enrolled in at least one Advanced Placement (AP) course. The new data also show students with disabilities, English learners, and Black students are all more likely to be held back each year. Twelve percent of Black students were retained in ninth grade— about double the overall rate.

Six decades into the “post-Brown” era, will the doors of opportunity finally open wide or continue to stay half shut on our watch? Most students know the phrase “knowledge is power.” CDF is happy that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is taking new steps to expand the range of data about inequalities that still exist in our nation’s schools. But now that we have more knowledge—what are we going to do with it? If you are interested in learning more and taking action, you can find out how the schools in your community are treating their students at the Civil Rights Data Collection’s website, and you can find new guidance on school discipline and positive alternatives to suspensions and other exclusionary discipline practices at the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments’ website. It’s time to close the opportunity gap and fulfill the promise of education as a great equalizer and a strong pathway to opportunity for all of our nation’s children.


Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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