Education

The Department of Education Is Failing Our Kids

Students exit a bus at Venice High School in Los Angeles, Calif., December 2015. (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)
To make lasting changes, we need a more honest assessment of why students struggle.

The Department of Education is kicking off a new equity initiative that aims to “reimagine” schooling. What, exactly, “reimagined” teaching will look like is based on a new report from the department’s office of civil rights, which found evidence of disparate racial outcomes during the pandemic. Reports such as these matter because they are the basis for new — and often radical — federal policy. Indeed, a closer inspection of this new report reveals that the administration is putting identity politics over students.

The Department of Education is quick to point out that schools were racist well before the pandemic began. What’s frustrating, though, is that the very evidence the DOE cites doesn’t support its claims. On page six, the department cites a 2018 report from the Education Trust, a nonprofit education advocacy group, writing that schools “typically attended” by blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans receive 13 percent less funding per student.

Yet it is flatly misleading to claim that minorities “typically attended” such schools. The cited study reported that the individual districts with the most extreme racial disparity had a 13 percent funding gap. That’s not an average. Furthermore, that percentage doesn’t account for the cost of living, income level, or district size — each of which matters a lot in this instance.

The very same study found that while some states allocated 5 percent less to districts with the highest minority-student population, an equal number of states gave five percent more to such districts. Therefore, differing income levels are driving that 13 percent national-funding difference. This should not be surprising: The majority of black Americans live in southern states, which are tend to be poorer and have lower costs of living.

This isn’t the only instance in which the department ignores crucial factors in its analysis. The DOE mentions “students of color” eight times when discussing deepening racial disparities, pinning a lack of resources as the primary culprit. However, the raw numbers indicate that poverty affects a school’s resources.

It is true, lamentably so, that minorities are often stuck in impoverished communities. However, identifying race instead of class considerably muddies the water. It is also simply true: School districts are primarily funded by local property taxes, not by ethnic quotas.

There is more work to be done, but the problem is not being ignored. Every single state surveyed allocated more state funding to poorer districts. Nevertheless, the Department of Education is signaling that future spending should focus on majority-minority communities, regardless of income. Here, the DOE needlessly politicizes school funding by neglecting poor white and Asian Americans.

The Department of Education misdiagnoses the problem and therefore comes to the wrong conclusion about the solution. The administration cites unequal funding and technological barriers as the primary reasons marginalized students lagged behind other groups during the pandemic. Yet again, though, the data do not support this conclusion.

Minority communities did have less access to technology, which did adversely affect their learning throughout the pandemic. But that’s not the whole story. The department also cites a report from Renaissance — an education consulting firm — which found that minorities fell behind other students in the winter of 2020 after the government had spent millions on improving technological access for minority communities. Therefore, while technology certainly played a role in the disparate outcomes, the very evidence cited by the Department of Education proves that technology cannot be solely to blame.

Frustratingly, the report also treats the entire nation as a monolith. Southern students were far more likely to be without technology because the South is more rural and has less Internet infrastructure than other regions. That’s not insignificant because, again, the majority of black Americans live in southern states. The Department of Education wholly ignores this geographic sorting.

These methodological “errors” seem intentional. White and Asian students are often treated as a group but had vastly different pandemic learning experiences. The DOE found that while most white students had in-person instruction by March 2021, fewer than 20 percent of Asian Americans had classroom access. Yet Asian Americans excelled during the pandemic, and their success cuts against the report’s own conclusion that access is the primary reason for educational disparities.

While the administration investigates these issues, it is ignoring a more critical problem in our education system. Truancy had become a virtual epidemic before COVID-19, and the number of missed classes doubled once students were sent home. The DOE reports that 30 percent of African-American students in Chicago consistently missed class even though nearly every student had digital access. Studies found similar results in Seattle.

It is evident that attending class helps learning and retention. One would think knowing how much attendance affects performance might be useful. It could help us address the problem by changing the perceptions around missing classes. But the DOE isn’t interested in handling this problem.

But let’s say the Department of Education is correct: underfunded schools and lack of access caused racially disparate outcomes. If that were the primary reason for the disparity, the administration is left with a difficult question: Are teachers’ unions racist for refusing to return to the classroom? Thinkers such as Ibram X. Kendi insist that racism is when institutions of power perpetuate racial inequity.

By its own report and this definition of racism, the Biden administration must seriously investigate how and why the teachers’ unions were complicit in racist systems. The administration has two options. On the one hand, it can admit that its report’s shoddy methodology left out crucial factors that actually explain the presence of racial disparities. If it chooses not to do so, however, then it must hold teachers’ unions responsible for their racism.

The Biden administration is launching a new Equity Summit Series on June 22 with roundtables and panels focused on making schooling more equitable. Yet the administration has already made up its mind about both the problem and the solution. To make lasting changes, we need a more honest assessment of why students struggle. Let’s hope that local leaders can tackle the hard questions our federal government won’t.

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