GAO Finds Racial Discrimination in K-12 Public Education

Fewer Math, Science Classes at Mostly Poor, Black or Hispanic Schools

Black and white school children during integration
School Integration, Barnard School, Washington, D.C. Buyenlarge / Getty Images

Whether by choice or necessity, students in U.S. public schools with mostly poor, Black or Hispanic students are more likely to suffer educational discrimination than in other schools, according to a federal government watchdog.

In April 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that from 2000 to 2014, the percentage of K-12 U.S. public schools with high percentages of poor and Black or Hispanic students increased from 9% to 16%, according to data from the Department of Education.

In these schools, from 75% to 100% of the students were Black or Hispanic and qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches available to students living in households with incomes below the federal poverty level.

The data also showed these schools offered students a disproportionately smaller number of math, science, and college preparatory courses compared to other schools. In addition, the schools had far more students failing to graduate on time due to being held back in 9th grade, suspended, or expelled.

According to the report, Hispanic students at these schools are often “triply segregated” by income, race, and language.

However, the GAO also found that that schools with mostly poor, Black or Hispanic students are more likely to be unable to afford the resources necessary to address these issues.

Homeless and Foster Children are Also Victims

Even if students from predominantly poor black and Hispanic schools graduate from high school, they are often less likely to get into college if they are also homeless or in foster care.

“Homeless and foster youth experience challenges, such as weak academic foundations, limited family support, and lack of awareness of available financial resources, making it harder for them to pursue college,” according to GAO’s report.

For example, homeless students are often discouraged by being asked to “justify why they are homeless” when applying for federal financial aid, noted the GAO.

“Asking personal and intrusive questions often causes unaccompanied homeless students to walk away before completing the financial aid process, according to officials from higher education organizations,” the report said.

In addition, it is often hard for homeless students to provide the proof of income documentation often required by the financial aid process.

The GAO recommended that the departments of Education and Health and Human Services develop services to help homeless and foster youth learn about the student loan and assistance process. 

History: Integration, Discrimination and the Law

Denying poor and minority students full and equal access to educational opportunities, for any reason, amounts to a form of racial discrimination under federal civil rights laws and regulations enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice. However, enactment and enforcement of those laws did not come quickly.

While it took well over a decade to take effect, the integration of U.S. public schools actually started in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court, through its unanimous decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, ruled that state laws creating “separate but equal” public schools for Blacks and Whites were unconstitutional.

By 1964, however, most Black children, mainly in states of the Deep South, still attended segregated Black-only schools. In response to this and other forms of racial discrimination, the U.S. Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA), outlawing discrimination in schools, workplaces, and places of public accommodation, like restaurants, and on all modes of public transportation.

Specifically addressing education, Title VI of the CRA prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in programs or activities that receive federal funding, including K-12 public schools and colleges.

In addition, Title IV of the Act authorizes Education to provide technical assistance to states or school districts in preparing adopting, and implementing desegregation plans, to arrange for training for school personnel on dealing with educational problems caused by desegregation, and to provide grants to school boards for staff training or hiring specialists to address desegregation.

Title IV of the CRA also created new tasks for two Cabinet-level federal agencies. Both the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division’s Educational Opportunities Section have some responsibility for enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Want the GAO Found: Department of Education

In preparing its report, the GAO examined data from the Department of Education on schools with both the highest and lowest percentages of poverty and Black or Hispanic students, as well as schools with all other percentages of these groups. Specifically, data was collected for the school years 2000-01 (78,194 schools), 2005-06 (91,910 schools), 2010-11 (94,612 schools), and 2013-14 (93,458 schools). Data came from traditional public schools, charter schools, and magnet schools.

The GAO report, in fact, criticized the Education Department for not regularly analyzing its school racial and poverty data in the same manner. “Conducting this type of analysis would enhance Education’s ability to target technical assistance and identify other disparities by school types and groups,” wrote the GAO.

For example, the Education Department had either failed to identify or chose not to report the lack of access to math, science, and college preparatory courses in mostly poor, Black or Hispanic schools as found by the GAO.

What the GAO Found: Department of Justice

GAO reported that as of April 2016, the Department of Justice was responsible for monitoring and enforcing 178 open federal court cases dealing with failures of schools to become fully racially integrated or to remain segregated, many of which date back 30 to 40 years.

However, the GAO found that the Department of Justice does not track important information about these cases, such as the last action taken.

For example, the GAO found that one of the federal courts had chided the Justice Department for not “keeping an eye” on ongoing racially-based test score disparities reported in one of the cases it had decided, thus greatly delaying action on the problem.

“Federal internal control standards state that agencies should use information to help identify specific actions that need to be taken to allow for effective monitoring,” wrote the GAO. “Without tracking key information about open cases, Justice’s ability toward effectively monitor such cases is hampered.”

What the GAO Recommended

The GAO recommended that the Departments of Education do a more thorough and timely job of analyzing its civil rights data to identify disparities among types and groups of schools, and that the Justice Department develop processes to better track new information on open federal school desegregation cases.

Both agencies said they were “considering” actions to comply with the GAO’s recommendations.