September 25, 1957. The Little Rock Nine—nine black high school students—were escorted by federal troops into Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., thus taking the first steps toward desegregating public schools in America.
March 21, 2014: Fifty-seven years later, the Department of Education’s civil rights office released a report showing the staggering percentages of minority youth facing obstacles to gaining an education.
The problems for African American and Latino students begin in preschool [PDF]. Black children make up 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but 42 percent of one-time suspensions are handed out to them. Latino children aren’t suspended at as high a rate: They represent one-third of preschool students and 25 percent of those suspended once. But that figure, percentage-wise, still compares unfavorably with white children, who represent 43 percent of preschool enrollment but only 26 percent of one-time suspensions. Black girls are being suspended [PDF] at higher rates (12 percent) than girls of any other race.
What could these very young children be doing to receive such harsh punishments? Some of the suspensions are handed out for normal child behavior, such as crying, having “accidents” during class and playing with imaginary guns.
The Department of Education report from 2012 highlighted disparities between white and minority students during middle and high school years, acknowledging what activists have long termed the “school-to-prison” pipeline. Public schools too-often hand children over to police rather than deal with issues internally, according to the ACLU. Black students only represent 16 percent of students enrolled in middle school and high school, but they represent more than one-quarter of those students referred to law enforcement and one-third of those with a school-related arrest. Records of in-school arrests show that the offenses are as minor as a girl saying “f-off” to someone that was teasing her, or a student running in the hall and accidentally bumping into a teacher.
Not only are these schools taking children out of their learning environment, but they’re not giving minority groups the resources they need to succeed. Of the high schools with the highest black and Latino percentages, only 25 percent of them offered Algebra 2, a math course needed to pass the SAT. Only a third of those schools offer chemistry, eliminating many college options for kids that dream of becoming a doctor, engineer or veterinarian. One in five schools nationwide lacks a college counselor for students, leaving them without guidance for the future.
It’s no wonder the most recent data show school dropout rates are 7 percent for black students and 14 percent for Latino students; the public school system seems to be discouraging students from coming back. There are no federal troops escorting these children into school, despite the barriers that face them every day they step into the building.
We may have said goodbye to separate-but-equal in 1954, but we are far from equality in education in 2014.