WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. John Conyers is urging passage of a bill that would reinstate private lawsuits to address racial inequities in public education after a government report showed an alarming increase in the percentage of public schools with high numbers of poor black or Hispanic students.
Conyers, D-Detroit, joined U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., on Tuesday to encourage a hearing for the legislation, which, if passed, would reverse a 2001 Supreme Court decision which held that no such private right to legal action exists under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Passage of the legislation faces extremely long odds in the current Congress, however.
Scott is the ranking Democratic member of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce and Conyers is the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and a cosponsor of the bill. Two years ago, they asked the General Accountability Office — a nonpartisan agency — to report on racial disparities in the nation’s public schools 60 years after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which ruled that laws formally segregating students by race were unconstitutional.
The GAO report — issued Tuesday — found that from 2001 to 2014, the percentage of public secondary schools in which more than three-quarters of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and more than three-quarters of the students were black and/or Hispanic grew from 9% to 16%.
Nationwide, the number of those schools more than doubled during the time period, from 7,009 in the 2000-01 school year to 15,089 in 2013-14, the most recent year for which data was available. The GAO study also found that 61% of all the high poverty schools in the nation — defined as those where at least three-quarters of the students received free or reduced-price lunches — had student bodies which were comprised mostly of black or Hispanic students.
“Research shows that lower levels of income were generally associated with worse student educational outcomes,” the report said. “Our analysis of (U.S. Department of) Education data also showed that schools that were highly isolated by poverty and race generally had fewer resources and disproportionately more disciplinary actions than other schools.”
As part of its report, GAO recommended that the Department of Education — and the Department of Justice — more systematically track and analyze information regarding racial and ethnic disparities and react more swiftly to concerns which may be raised on open civil rights cases.
“Nearly a half-century of research shows that segregation negatively impacts student outcomes and exacerbates unequal opportunity experienced later in life,” said a fact sheet put out by Scott’s office. “(The) GAO analysis of data … confirmed that race and poverty continues to drive inequities in education.”
“Though the federal government enacted landmark legislation to address growing academic inequality in our schools, our requested investigation by the GAO has confirmed that, not only are our schools largely segregated by race and class, they are also re-segregating at an alarming rate,” said Conyers.
“Absent a focused effort at the federal level, these trends toward re-segregation will continue unabated,” Conyers continued. “We call on the Departments of Education and Justice to use the full extent of their authority to investigate the re-segregation of local schools and ensure that all children receive access to equal education at all publicly funded schools, traditional and charter.”
Scott and Conyers are urging House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., to hold hearings on whether school districts are living up to their obligation to reduce racial disparities.
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