CREDIT: Philip Weiss, AP

A statue memorializing the Confederacy is spray-painted with the message “Black Lives Matter” several days after a shooting at a historic black church Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/WCSC-TV, Philip Weiss)

The Department of Education recently released some startling numbers about how much our country spends on prisons versus schools that added fuel to the fire of national conversation about criminal justice reform.

One way to think about our national priorities is to look at where we spend our money. For example, according to the department’s report, every single state spends less all on pre-k-12 education than they do on corrections. And over the past 20 years, state and local spending on public colleges and universities has remained stagnant while spending on the prison system rose by almost 90 percent.

Amid the conversation about systemic racism sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement, especially in the wake of the police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and the subsequent protests across the country, it is important to look at how racism manifests itself in our education system.

In addition to inadequate levels of education funding, there are other factors that affect quality of education, such as racial bias that reveals itself through school discipline and our curricula choices. Decades of racial bias against black Americans and the legacy of slavery are evident in our classrooms.

Ongoing school segregation that reduces opportunities for black students

Representatives of the Congress of Racial Equality and student groups mass at the City Hall steps in Columbus, Ohio on April 18, 1964 to support civil rights leaders protesting alleged de factor segregation in Cleveland’s schools.

Representatives of the Congress of Racial Equality and student groups mass at the City Hall steps in Columbus, Ohio on April 18, 1964 to support civil rights leaders protesting alleged de factor segregation in Cleveland’s schools. CREDIT: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Although it has been more than 60 years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision establishing that separate schools for white students and black students are not equal, schools in the U.S. remain very economically and racially segregated.

School segregation is often assumed to be a problem specific to the South. But northern cities and midwestern cities — like Chicago, New York City, Detroit, and Boston, where people arguably fought hardest against court-ordered busing — also have many racially isolated schools. On the west coast, California had 31 open desegregation cases as of 2014.

Students’ quality of education suffers in this segregated school environment. In schools with a disproportionately high concentration of students of color, students are instructed by less experienced teachers, have less access to things like Advanced Placement courses, and receive more expulsions and suspensions. Studies have shown that students who attend segregated schools make slower progress in reading.

The facilities themselves tend to be very poor as well. In Detroit Public Schools, where there is a budget crisis, teachers have protested poor school conditions such as dead rodents, spoiled food, cracked floors, and moldy ceilings. In Baltimore schools, students have had to wear coats and scarves to class because they didn’t have enough heat in their classrooms.

Student discipline that pushes black kids out of school

Racially biased school discipline contributes to what’s known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which refers to school policies that push students, especially students of color, into the criminal justice system. Students who face even one suspension in a school year are far more likely to drop out and come into contact with the criminal justice system.

Black students begin receiving far more suspensions than white children beginning as early as preschool. Compared to white children, black preschool children were 3.6 times to receive an out-of-school suspension, according to U.S. Department of Education data. Schools that have a predominantly black and Hispanic student population tend to have higher rates of discipline against students of color, a trend that also holds true for charter schools.

The disparities here are connected to biases to against black children. A Stanford study found that black students are treated differently by teachers when they misbehave or don’t follow directions a second time. Other research released in 2014 from the American Psychological Association shows that black boys as young as 10 are viewed as less innocent than their white peers and have a greater chance of being mistaken for older children, which can contribute to how their behavior is viewed by teachers.

The increase in school resource officers in schools, as well as the rise of “zero tolerance” policies — which means that the smallest infraction can carry a suspension — has only intensified this student discipline problem. Some officers receive more training than others, but too often these officers go straight from the street to the school with little or no training on child development. Many advocates for equity in education say behaviors that are normal for teenagers are treated with outsized discipline from officers. In some states, students are charged and saddled with tickets and fines their parents can’t pay.


CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

One example of an overblown incident of student discipline is the case of a middle school student who was accused of stealing a carton of milk from the cafeteria. The student is on the free lunch program, so he is allowed to drink milk without paying for it — nonetheless, he was stopped and questioned by an officer and accused of trying to “conceal” the milk. When the officer put his hands on the student, the student fidgeted and pulled away, actions the school considered to be noncompliant. The teenager was charged with larceny and will have to appear in juvenile court.

Even when students complete high school and apply to college, student discipline bias follows them. The majority of colleges take students’ discipline records into account, especially school discipline that leads to involvement of police. Because students of color are more likely to face discipline that involved police officers, they are most hurt by these approaches. The Department of Education recently recommended that college applications should tailor these questions more narrowly to be fairer to students, especially black students, if they don’t choose to eliminate them completely.

History lessons that only focus on white lives

Roni Dean-Burren, the Texas mother and University of Houston student who criticized McGraw-Hill's textbook.

Roni Dean-Burren, the Texas mother and University of Houston student who criticized McGraw-Hill’s textbook. CREDIT: Pat Sullivan, AP

Black students are also expected to stay engaged and interested in courses that don’t recognize the reality of their lives — and don’t cover the contributions of black political leaders and artists as often as those of white historical figures. Even when black historical figures and contemporary political and cultural leaders are discussed, their lives are whitewashed, students and teachers say.

For instance, educators in South Carolina say the strict guidelines for what they are supposed to cover in history courses to prepare students for state exams makes it difficult to stray from a focus on white Founding Fathers and cultural milestones that may be more significant for white people — even though they may want to teach students about other topics more central to communities of color, like the Harlem Renaissance.

And when it comes to teaching students about the history of different racial groups, there are many examples of the ways schools fail to impart information in a sensitive and accurate way. For instance, one McGraw-Hill textbook downplayed the horror of slavery by calling slaves “workers” who “emigrated” to the United States. Parents and teachers were also outraged over a proposed textbook of Mexican-American history that portrayed Mexican-Americans as trying to “destroy this society.”

This Eurocentric approach extends to the concept of “professionalism” that de-emphasizes any norms that aren’t centered on what white people consider appropriate. For instance, black students argue that school uniforms restrict their ability to style their hair or wear dress that distinctly belongs to African countries. This spring, a black student who attended his graduation wearing a Kente cloth, a traditional Ghanaian cloth, was escorted from the ceremony by police, since the cloth violated the rules for the ceremony dress code.

Students are starting to resist these norms through protests and other actions. Earlier this year, Baltimore students protested school uniforms for a whole week, saying they see uniforms as “forced assimilation” that “ignores the rich culture and history of black hair.” Many students wore head wraps as well as Dashikis, which originated from West Africa. During the protest, the school administration released a letter, which read, “… despite recent print and social media sensationalism about dress code, City College will remain a uniform school.”