Education Law Prof Blog: Education Protest Broadens Its Wings--This Time It's Revealing Segregation and Inequality

The largest protests of the past month have been over teacher salaries and benefits.  Oklahoma teachers, however, stood tall and highlighted the lack of resources for students as well.  Pictures of worn out text books went viral.  The fact that students were learning from books so old that they previously belonged to the likes of Blake Shelton caught more attention.  But none of them squarely confronted segregation and inequality.  Thus far, they had focused on the fact resources in public education are too low in general.  The truth is that some local communities are wealthy enough that they can shield themselves from states' disinvestment in public education.  The net result of this dynamic is widening inequality.  Wealthy communities can continue to increase resources while poorer ones fall further behind.

Students in DC public schools just went on their own strike (with teachers), highlighting the depths of the effects of segregation and inequality.  Abel McDaniels offers this insightful reporting:

On Wednesday, teachers and students at Anacostia Senior High School in Southeast D.C. walked out to protest the facility’s poor conditions. Teachers said the cafeteria is flooded, no breakfast was served to students, there’s no running water, and bathrooms are broken, so some students were told to use bathrooms in a building three blocks away.
The need for this walkout exemplifies how the district has failed black neighborhoods and their schools. As one student told The Washington Post, “If it was any other school in the District, they would have closed school. That’s unsanitary.”

. . . .

Washington, D.C.’s public school system is just one example of how the impacts of racial segregation in our schools have been ignored. Not long ago, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) was among the country’s lowest-performing districts. In 2011, just 58 percent of students graduated on time. Over the past decade, district and city leaders began an aggressive effort to improve the schools. The heart of this strategy was revamping the human capital system, and the district put in place new strategies to recruit, retain, train, and compensate teachers and leaders. They overhauled the salary structure to dramatically increase starting and mid-career salaries, and they provided strong financial incentives to high-performing teachers who chose to teach in schools serving low-income students. Today, a high-performing teacher at a high-poverty school in DCPS can earn over $130,000.

The district also implemented high-quality, free, universal pre-school and pre-kindergarten throughout the city. They implemented higher academic standards and embraced an annual test aligned to those standards. And they invested millions of dollars in renovating school facilities. The city also tripled the size of its charter sector (from 13 percent of enrollment in 2001 to 44.5 percent in 2016) and designed a unified system that families could use to enroll their children in both district or charter schools. In the years since, DCPS has seen rapid gains on National Assessment of Education Progress scores, earning it the reputation as the nation’s fastest-improving urban district.

However, as the protests today at Anacostia demonstrate, these reforms haven’t supported improved learning conditions across all district schools, in part because many neighborhoods remain highly segregated by race and socioeconomic status. In 2017, 66 percent of “priority schools”—where all students perform poorly—were concentrated in Wards 7 or 8, where most families are Black and low-income. The other 34 percent are spread across the six remaining wards, so other areas of the city, many of which have seen rapid increases in income and gentrification, do not have concentrations of struggling schools.

. . . .

Two elementary schools in Southeast D.C. show how inequities between district schools that serve white, middle class children, and those that serve low-income, Black students play out. Brent Elementary School is in the increasingly fashionable, gentrifying Eastern Market section of Capitol Hill. Two-thirds of the students there are white, and most students live in the surrounding neighborhood. Brent is a “rising” school: Roughly two-thirds of students performed in the highest levels of the PARCC assessment, which is the standardized test aligned to the Common Core State Standards. In a district where 77 percent of students are low-income, just 10 percent of the kids at Brent are.

Orr Elementary School is two miles away, across the river in the Randle Highlands part of Anacostia. Virtually all of Orr’s students are Black, and they are all low-income. In 2017, Just 13 percent of Orr students met grade-level expectations on the PARCC, and the school building itself is in disrepair. Students have had to deal with crumbling ceilings, outdated ventilation systems, problems with toilets, and vermin infestations—despite DC’s hyped investments in school facitlities. Many Orr students will eventually attend Anacostia Senior High, where the students walked out today in protest of similar conditions.

Read his full article here.

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Derek Black

Derek W. Black is a Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. His areas of expertise include education law and policy, constitutional law, civil rights, evidence, and torts. The focus of his current scholarship is the intersection of constitutional law and public education, particularly as...