Separate and Unequal?

Today, the nation marks the 63rd anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case declaring that racially segregated schools are unconstitutional. On last year’s anniversary, we released a report examining race and poverty in schools. We found that some K-12 public schools appeared to still be segregated by race, and also by class. We looked at how these schools measured up to others, and found some disparities.

In this WatchBlog post, we’ll share some of those findings.

Race, poverty and education

To try to understand what was happening, we looked at schools where 75 to100 percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—a common indicator of poverty. Research shows that lower levels of income are generally associated with worse student educational outcomes. We also looked at schools where 75 to 100 percent of the students were Black or Hispanic—a measure of a highly racially isolated school.

In the 2000-01 school year, 9 percent of K-12 public schools had high proportions of poor and Black or Hispanic students. By school year 2013-14, that number was up to 16 percent.

We found that the 8.4 million largely poor, Black or Hispanic students attending these schools in school year 2011-12 had disproportionately less access to certain types of courses.

Take a look at our bar charts to see the disparities:

Math: We looked at how many schools offered four math classes—Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, and Calculus. In the chart on the left, the schools with high poverty and the most Black or Hispanic students are shown in blue. In the chart on the right, we broke that down further to see the differences among traditional neighborhood schools, charter schools, and magnet schools.

As you can see, schools with high poverty and the most Black or Hispanic students offered fewer math classes than others. Among just the schools with high poverty and the most Black or Hispanic students, proportionally more magnet schools offered all four math courses.

Figure 5: Percentage of Middle and High Schools Offering Selected Math Courses, School Year 2011-12(Excerpted from GAO-16-345)

Science: We saw a similar pattern in Physics when we looked at schools offering Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. Among the schools with high poverty and the most Black or Hispanic students, only 55 percent offered Physics, and again, proportionally more of those were magnet schools.

Figure 6: Percentage of Middle and High Schools Offering Selected Science Courses, School Year 2011-12(Excerpted from GAO-16-345)

College prep and gifted programs: Disparities in offering Advanced Placement® courses are more apparent when comparing schools with low poverty and the fewest Black or Hispanic students (72 percent) and schools with high poverty and the most Black or Hispanic students (48 percent). Slightly more schools with high poverty and the most Black or Hispanic students offered gifted and talented programs than those with low poverty and the fewest Black or Hispanic students. Again, proportionally more magnet schools offered these courses and programs.

Figure 7: Percentage of Schools Offering Advanced Placement (AP) Courses and Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Programs, School Year 2011-12(Excerpted from GAO-16-345)

We made recommendations to the Department of Education and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to help them identify patterns and address racial discrimination and the disparities we’ve found in these schools. You can track the status of these and all of our recommendations in our database.

There is also more information on schools in the report, on topics such as discipline, selected school districts’ efforts to increase diversity, and what the federal government has done to address discrimination and disparities in schools.


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