Education, SOCIAL ISSUES — 28/Mar/2012 09:00

PREPS for Students of Color: The Legal Justification and A Call for Action

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According to the Department of Education’s (2012) report, “Revealing New Truths about Our Nation’s Schools,” 40 percent of the public schools with the highest Black/Latino enrollment in Prince George’s County Public Schools do not offer Algebra II; however, the University of Maryland-College Park requires not only Algebra II, but also at least one year of math beyond Algebra II. Therefore, some public institutions in Maryland, through omission and negligence, collude to deny thousands of Black, Latino, and some White students the right to attend the state’s flagship university. There are many U.S. states that systematically disqualify students of color from their best public colleges by omitting required courses from select public schools’ curricula, but is this legal?  Using our personal journey, professional expertise, and consultation with an educational attorney, we explored the legal and ethical bases for Public Reciprocity in Education for Postsecondary Success (PREPS). We hope this analysis will spark a national discussion and subsequent action to remove one of the most pervasive and elusive barriers to postsecondary success for Black and Latino students.

Dr. Toldson’s Journey

I graduated from Istrouma Senior High School, a public high school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana of 750 students, 98 percent Black and 90 percent eligible for free or reduced lunch (GreatSchools, 2012). As a student at Istrouma, one of my friends informed me that Louisiana State University (LSU) required Physics for admission. Physics was not required for me to graduate high school, and I had only marginal interests in attending LSU; however, I decided to enroll in Physics during my senior year because I did not want to limit my options. My school only offered a half year of Physics (.5 credits), so I was not certain that I met LSU’s admissions criteria, but my application was accepted. I enrolled in LSU the summer after I graduated, through a minority bridge program, and graduated four years later.

During my sophomore year of college, I returned to Istrouma to visit my high school Physics teacher; one of my favorite teachers named Mr. Jacob. “Toldson man!” Mr. Jacob, who is White, exclaimed, “I think our principal forgot what color he is.” At the time, the principal was Black. Mr. Jacob was upset because the principal had recently succeeded in eliminating Physics from the curriculum at Istrouma High School.

Admittedly, I had the utmost respect for our principal. He oversaw the transformation of the school after we had two shootings and one stabbing resulting in a student’s death during my sophomore year of high school. Upon his hiring, he restored order and discipline, but perhaps his myopic view of his responsibilities was not conducive to students like me. If I were born two years earlier, the man who created a safer learning environment for me might have also denied me the opportunity to attend my state’s flagship university.

Over the past 5 years, I have spoken frequently to colleagues, teachers, counselors, and school administrators about students who are being systematically denied access to colleges and universities because the curricula of their assigned public school are not compatible with public institutions of higher education. I have conducted trainings with groups of principals and principal trainees who talk candidly about the challenges of providing academic enrichment to students, while meeting social and political pressures to enforce strict disciplinary policies and procedures. The Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC: 2012) report reveals that problems associated with public high schools under preparing Black students for college is far more pervasive than I imagined.

Dr. Lewis’ Journey

My secondary education took place at Capitol High School, a predominately Black, low socioeconomic status (SES), urban public high school in Baton Rouge. As class president of 264 graduating seniors, I knew that many of my friends had been motivated by our teachers to attend various colleges/universities in the state. I often wondered why only 22 of the 264 pursued higher education options after high school. I concluded ‘life circumstances’ dictated a change in life plans. After much reflection, I now understand that it was more than life circumstances. My high school did not provide all of the necessary courses that would make us eligible for various higher education options in the state.

For example, most public colleges/universities in our state required a full year of academic credit in an advanced mathematics course. However, after Algebra I and Geometry, our school only had one semester (.5 credits) of a class called ‘Advanced Math.’ I enrolled in this course; however, I could not meet the admission requirements to the majority of the public colleges/universities in my state, because I was one semester (.5 credits) short of the requirements in this area. I learned that we did not have the same type of advanced mathematics courses (i.e., Algebra II, Calculus, Trigonometry, etc.) as other high schools.

As I prepared my college/university applications, I did not have enough credits in math and science, to attend the public flagship university of my state, even though I was ranked fourth in my graduating class. At the time, I did not know that various postsecondary options at higher-tiered colleges/universities were not available to me since my high school did not have all the necessary courses to be eligible for admission.

As a professor of urban education, my story is an example of thousands of students who are denied access to postsecondary education at the most selective public colleges/universities in this country based on the curricula of their respective high schools. In short, many public high schools are not compatible with public higher education options. In my review of the most recent Department of Education report, I have learned that we have a systematic educational crisis on our hands. Thus, the establishment of PREPS is timely.

Public Reciprocity in Education for Postsecondary Success (PREPS)

The objective of this analysis is to explore the legal and ethical bases for PREPS. We have conceptualized PREPS as the fiduciary responsibility of the state to provide public secondary educational options that meet the basic academic requirements of the same state’s institutions of higher education. Public secondary and postsecondary institutions operate with public trust and funds from tax revenue. Public high schools and public colleges are bound to state and federal requirements, including an equal protection clause that prohibits states from denying any person within its jurisdiction equal protection of the laws. The Equal Protection Clause, which holds that “all men [and women] are created equal,” was a pivotal component of the argument behind Brown v. Board of Education (Araiza & Medina, 2011). Brown (1954) held that separate schools were fundamentally unequal and illegal because they forced inferior education, denying citizens their unalienable right to pursue associated ambitions.

Today, of the 8,550,344 Black children enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade in the U.S., 95.5 percent attend public schools and 4.5% attend private schools (Institute of Education Sciences & National Center for Education Statistics, 2012). The vast majority of public school students are assigned to their schools by their respective jurisdiction based on their home address. Therefore, many public school students are systematically denied access to their states’ most selective public institutions of higher education because of their address.

Insufficient PREPS disproportionately affect Black students. The CRDC report, “Revealing New Truths about Our Nation’s Schools,” reported deep disparities in access to high-level math and science courses in the nation’s largest and most diverse school districts, including New York City Public Schools, Los Angeles Unified School District, and Chicago Public Schools (United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2012). In public schools serving the fewest Latino and African American students, 82 percent offer Algebra II, 66 percent offer Physics and 55 percent offer Calculus. For schools serving the most African American and Hispanic students, 65 percent offer Algebra II, 40 percent offer Physics, and only 29 percent offer Calculus (United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2012).

To explore the legal case for PREPS, we consulted with Attorney Damon Hewitt, Director of Education Practice for The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). Mr. Hewitt agreed that unequal opportunities in American education present structural barriers, which limit some student’s opportunities, no matter how hard they work. However, states do not currently have a fiduciary duty for PREPS in a legal sense. Mr. Hewitt explained that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (1964) prohibits racial discrimination by any entity that received federal funds. An individual student would not likely have a viable case, absent proof of a violation of federal or state law (e.g., state general education law, special education law, or civil rights/anti-discrimination law). However, if schools exhibit a pattern of omitting important classes from the curricula of schools with high concentrations of students of color, this could constitute a “racially disparate impact” (Kim, Losen, & Hewitt, 2010).

According to Mr. Hewitt, the current Supreme Court precedent allows individuals to bring only intentional discrimination claims for racial disparities in education, which he suggest is very difficult. However, the U.S. Department of Education has jurisdiction to address policies implemented by recipients of federal funds that result in a racially disparate impact, even when there is no evidence of discriminatory intent. Educational policies that result in racially disparate impacts may violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, especially when the policies are not justified by “educational necessity” (Kim, Losen, & Hewitt, 2010). Even if a school district can point to such a necessity, disparate impact discrimination could be established if there are “less discriminatory alternatives” that the school district could use instead. Under a disparate impact analysis, the federal government might find that the lack of access to advanced math and science courses constitutes a disparate impact.

New York City Public Schools (22 percent), Orange County Public Schools in Florida (38 percent), and Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida (57 percent) had the lowest percent of schools that offer Algebra II in high schools with the highest Black/Latino enrollment. Hillsborough County Public Schools also has the greatest racial disparity, because they offer Algebra II to 100 percent of students in schools with the lowest percent of Black and Latino students (United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2012). Incidentally, Florida’s two flagship universities, University of Florida and Florida State University, require four units of math with one year of math beyond Algebra II. According to Mr. Hewitt, extreme disparities of this type might constitute intentional race discrimination, depending on the attendant circumstances. Intentional discrimination is often difficult to prove, but even without evidence of intentional discrimination, this scenario could still conflict with Title VI.

Overall, we base our argument for PREPS on our personal journeys, our conversations with thousands of school leaders, teachers, parents and students through our work as consultants, and the U.S. Department of Education report. Table 1 (at the end of the article) identifies each state’s public flagship university along with its current mathematics and science requirements for admission. Over 90 percent of these institutions require a minimum of three credits, and in most cases require four credits, of math and science. When reconciling the CRDC’s findings with the admissions requirements of states’ flagship universities, we clearly see that many public schools serving high percentages of Black and Hispanic children, not only under prepare students for, but also disqualify them from the best public colleges.

While there is some legal basis for PREPS, more importantly, on a moral level, PREPS is the right action for any person or institution that we entrust to make educational decisions with public funds. Inadequate and inconsistent PREPS creates a system of separate and unequal public educational facilities, exclusionary practices, and long-term racial caste in America. PREPS has economic and social benefits, because it levels the playing field and gives every student power to aim for lofty educational goals and become better financial contributors to our society (Toldson & Esters, 2012).

A Call for Action

To achieve PREPS in local school districts across the U.S., we offer the following set of action items for school leaders, parents, policymakers and educational activists, to begin the process of equal educational access for all students, particularly Black and Latino students, in schools that are systematically denying access to the nation’s most competitive public colleges/universities.

Action Items for Parents and Community Activists

We encourage parents and community activists to alert local school board members, superintendents and principals of discrepancies between college admissions criteria and high school class offerings. According to Mr. Hewitt, concerns should be expressed around the issue of fundamental fairness and opportunities to learn within school districts. More specifically, express concerns with an intentional focus on distinctions between schools in the same school district that have different resources and curricular offerings. Once these concerns are expressed, strategic plans should be devised in the community to hold educational administrators accountable for curricula and policy changes within the school district.

Action Items for Schools and School Districts

We recommend that individual schools and their governing school districts provide a disclosure statement to students’ parents and guardians, which specifies any courses required for admissions to the most competitive public universities of the state, which are not available in their curriculum. The disclosure statement should also provide educational options for students to access the necessary courses within the school district. For example, a student should be able to enroll in an advanced math or science course at another school within the school district, at a community college, through online instruction, or with home-school materials. The option should be without financial burden and lead to proper academic credit for their high school transcript.

Action Items for Guidance Counselors

High school guidance counselors are responsible for advising students on how to prepare for college and having knowledge about the admissions criteria for all public universities within their state. We recommend that schools provide regular professional development for guidance counselors to stay updated on current admission requirements for all public colleges and universities, with particular emphasis on the state’s most competitive universities. Guidance counselors should strive for early identification of students with college potential, and advise them of ways to increase their chances of being admitted to the most competitive colleges. This will require guidance counselors to have updated information on options to complete classes that the school may not offer on campus and how to properly record classes on their academic transcripts. We hope guidance counselors will use the table we constructed for this report.

Moving Forward

When releasing the CRDC’s report, U. S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan stated,” The real power of the data is not only the truth behind the numbers, but in the impact that it can have when married with courage and will to challenge the status quo.” In our view, inadequate PREPS is one of the most pervasive, elusive, and blatantly discriminatory practices in public education, and should be addressed through legislative and social action. We hope to collaborate with educational community and policymakers to build and implement a strategic action plan for PREPS. We consider inaction to be an injustice to our forefathers whose efforts paved the way for each of us to be successful in our own careers.

It is our turn to open doors for many who will come behind us that see education as a viable option to open doors of opportunity that the U.S. promises to each of its citizens. To bring attention to this issue, we will hold a special session at the 2012 American Education Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and an education policy forum with policymakers and educational leaders during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. We hope that you join us in various think tanks, policy forums and conferences as we refine our action plan to provide opportunities to all students regardless of their race or home address.

References

Araiza, W. D., & Medina, M. I. (2011). Constitutional law : cases, history, and practice (4th ed.). New Providence, NJ: LexisNexis.

Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka Kansas, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000e et seq (1964).

GreatSchools. (2012). Istrouma Senior High School  Retrieved from http://www.greatschools.org/louisiana/baton-rouge/389-Istrouma-Senior-High-School/

Institute of Education Sciences & National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). The Common Core of Data (CCD) Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/ccd/

Kim, C., Losen, D. J., & Hewitt, D. (2010). The school to prison pipeline : Structuring legal reform. New York: New York University.

Toldson, I. A., & Esters, L. L. (2012). The quest for excellence: Supporting the academic success of minority males in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Washington, DC: Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. (2012). Revealing new truths about our nation’s schools. Washington, DC: United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

Note

This article was originally published in The Journal of Negro Education Volume 81, Number 1 (Winter 2012).  Dr. Toldson’s research is conducted under the auspices of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation with support from the Open Society Foundation Campaign for Black Male Achievement.  Dr. Toldson and Dr. Lewis are researchers for the Black Male Achievement Research Collaborative (BMAC).


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