Racial Disparities in Education and the Role of Government

The death of George Floyd and other Black men and women has prompted demonstrations across the country and brought more attention to the issues of racial inequality. Over the past several years, GAO has been asked to examine various racial inequalities in public programs and we have made recommendations to address them.

Today is the first of 3 blog posts in which we will address these reports. The first deals with equality in education.

School Discipline

Unequal treatment can start at a young age. In 2018, we reported that starting in pre-school, children as young as 3 and 4 have been suspended and expelled from school—a pattern that can continue throughout a child’s education. In K-12 public schools, Black students, boys, and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined (e.g., suspended or expelled), according to our review of the Department of Education’s national civil rights data.

These disparities were widespread and persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended. For example, while only 15.5% of public school students were Black, about 39% of students suspended from school were Black—an overrepresentation of about 23 percentage points (see figure).

Students Suspended from School Compared to Student Population, by Race, Sex, and Disability Status, School Year 2013-14

Note: Disparities in student discipline such as those presented in this figure may support a finding of discrimination, but taken alone, do not establish whether unlawful discrimination has occurred.

Minority students may also be more likely to attend alternative public schools because of issues like poor grades and disruptive behavior. In 2019, we found that Black boys transferred to alternative schools at rates higher than any other group for disciplinary reasons, and that they, along with Hispanic boys and boys with disabilities, attended alternative schools in greater proportions than they did regular public schools attended by the majority of U.S. public school students.  For example, Black boys accounted for 16 percent of students at alternative schools, but only 8 percent of students at regular public schools in 2015-16.

Education Quality and Access

The link between racial and ethnic minorities and poverty is long-standing. Studies have noted concerns about this segment of the population that falls at the intersection of poverty and minority status in schools and how this affects their access to quality education. In 2018, we reported that during high school, students in high-poverty areas had less access to college-prep courses.  Schools in high-poverty areas were also less likely to offer math and science courses than most public 4-year colleges expected students to take in high school. The racial composition of the highest poverty schools was also 80% Black or Hispanic.

The Department of Education has several initiatives to help students prepare for college. For example, GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) seeks to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. In 2016, Education awarded about $323 million in grants through GEAR UP.

In our 2018 report, we described  an investigation the Department of Education conducted in 2014 looking at  whether Black students in a Virginia school district had the same access to educational opportunities as other students. It found a significant disparity between the numbers of Black and White high school students who take AP, advanced courses, and dual-credit programs.

Addressing Disparity in Schools

So, what can be done to identify and address racial disparities in K-12 public schools? In 2016, we recommended that the Department of Education, which is to ensure equal access to education and promote educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights in our nation’s schools, routinely analyze its Civil Rights dataset, which could help it identify issues and patterns of disparities. Our recommendation was implemented in 2018.

The Department of Justice also plays a role in enforcing federal civil rights laws in the context of K-12 education. For example, it monitors and enforces open federal school desegregation orders where Justice is a party to the litigation.  At the time of our study, many of these desegregation orders had been in place for 30 and 40 years.   For example, in a 2014 opinion in a long-standing desegregation case, the court described a long period of dormancy in the case and stated that lack of activity had taken its toll, noting, that the district had not submitted the annual reports required under the consent order to the court for the past 20 years. In 2016, we recommended that the Department of Justice systematically track key summary information across its portfolio of open desegregation cases to help inform its monitoring. Our recommendation was implemented in 2019.

To learn more about GAO’s work on education, visit our key issues pages on Ensuring Access to Safe, Quality K-12 Education and Postsecondary Education Access and Affordability.


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