4 ways racial inequity harms American schoolchildren

Divisive school district borders.
Yasmine Gateau for NPR

The police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., have sparked a national conversation around racial justice. But the country's racial justice problems aren't limited to policing — American schools have long struggled with racial inequity.

"Our students of color are treated differently in our schools," Kim Ellison, who chairs the Minneapolis Board of Education, told NPR earlier this month. A week after Floyd's death, the board voted to end its contract with the city's police department, which provided the district with school resource officers.

"It's an issue of equity for us," Ellison explained.

Equity has long been a problem in American education. In many ways, the issues playing out between police and communities of color — including implicit bias and overly harsh punishment — are playing out in schools, too.

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Here are four things to know about how racial inequity affects the nation's school children.

Black students are more likely to be arrested at school

In the 2013-2014 school year, black students accounted for 16 percent of students enrolled in U.S. public schools, but 33 percent of arrests in those schools. That's according to a 2017 analysis of federal data by the Education Week Research Center. Meanwhile, white students accounted for 50 percent of enrollment and 34 percent of arrests, and Hispanic students accounted for 25 percent enrollment and 25 percent of arrests.

"If you've got a kid who is black, there's a decent amount of research that shows that good, well-intentioned and not overtly racist people will look at that situation and judge it to be more threatening," said Josh Gupta-Kagan, a law professor at the University of South Carolina.

Gupta-Kagan spoke to NPR's Kat Chow in 2017, two years after a troubling video went viral, showing a school resource officer in South Carolina throwing a black student from her desk to the ground.

The video angered many parents in the district, and led them to question the role SROs should play in schools. Hugh Harmon, then-head of the district's black parents association, told Chow his group has been asking for some time, "Is [the SRO] a school police officer, or is he a resource as the name suggests?"

Black students are more likely to be suspended

In 2018, NPR's Anya Kamenetz reported that between 2012 to 2016, black high school students were twice as likely to be suspended as white or Hispanic high school students.

Students with disabilities were also twice as likely to be suspended as those without disabilities. According to federal data, special education students are also more likely to be Native American or black.

Kamenetz wrote, "research suggests suspension and expulsion, arrests and referrals to law enforcement, [are] associated with dropping out of school and going to jail. All of these consequences happen more frequently to black students, even in preschool."

Implicit bias isn't just a police problem — it happens in preschool, too

A 2016 paper from the Yale Child Study Center looked at how implicit bias plays out in preschool classrooms. The study was simple: Preschool teachers were shown videos of four children — a black boy and girl, and a white boy and girl — and were asked to flag any "challenging behavior." The kicker was that the videos didn't actually display any challenging behavior.

According to NPR's Cory Turner, researchers used special eye-scan technology to measure where the teachers were looking. Lead researcher Walter Gilliam wanted to know: When teachers expected bad behavior, who did they watch?

"What we found was exactly what we expected based on the rates at which children are expelled from preschool programs," Gilliam said. "Teachers looked more at the black children than the white children, and they looked specifically more at the African-American boy."

White school districts receive more funding on average than nonwhite districts

In 2019, a report from the nonprofit EdBuild began with a striking number: $23 billion. That's how much more funding predominantly white school districts receive compared with districts that serve mostly students of color.

As NPR's Clare Lombardo reported, EdBuild found that high-poverty districts serving mostly students of color receive about $1,600 less per student than the national average, while districts that are predominately white and poor receive about $130 less.

What's causing that disparity? A school district's resources often come down to how wealthy an area is and how much residents pay in taxes, explained Rebecca Sibilia, founder and CEO of EdBuild.

"We have built a school funding system that is reliant on geography, and therefore the school funding system has inherited all of the historical ills of where we have forced and incentivized people to live," she says.

Funding inequities will likely get worse during the current pandemic. With state income and sales tax revenues crashing, some governors are already cutting their education budgets. Education leaders are warning the cuts could lead to a devastating financial meltdown for schools.

According to recent reporting from Cory Turner, "schools won't just need help making up for dramatic gaps in state spending. They'll need extra money to pay for the extra things they're being asked to do: feed children and families in hard-hit communities, help millions of students make up for learning time they've lost while home, and make sure schools are safe when children do finally return to class."

In many states, Turner found, these cuts will hit vulnerable, low-income communities the hardest.

The same is true when it comes to the challenges around remote learning. About 1 in 4 Americans don't have access to high speed internet at home, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center. And those unconnected households are more likely to be black or Hispanic, Pew found. With schools relying so heavily on remote learning during the pandemic, students in these households are also more at risk of falling behind.

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