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Kerner At 50: Educational Equity Still a Dream Deferred


Fifty years ago, the Kerner Commission issued a seminal report on racial division and disparities in the United States. With this blog, the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) is launching a new series, Education and the Path to Equity, to commemorate the release of the Kerner Report and to examine issues of education and equity 5 decades after that release.

Kerner At 50: Educational Equity Still a Dream Deferred
Linda Darling-Hammond speaking at the event, Kerner Commission 50th Anniversary: Education and the Path to One Nation, Indivisible.

In 1967, in response to widespread civil unrest, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (also known as the Kerner Commission) to examine racial division and disparities in the United States. In 1968, the Kerner Commission issued a report concluding that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Without major social changes, the Commission warned, the U.S. faced a “system of apartheid” in its major cities. Today, 50 years after the report was issued, that prediction characterizes most of our large urban areas, where intensifying segregation and concentrated poverty have collided with disparities in school funding to reinforce educational inequality, locking millions of students of color from low-income families out of today’s knowledge-based economy.

Across the country we have “unequal opportunities and unequal outcomes,” as UCLA Professor Gary Orfield described the status of U.S. public education at LPI’s recent event, Education and the Path to One Nation, Indivisible, marking the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Report. “We have intense double segregation by race and class,” he said. “Progress since Kerner has been lost. We’re back behind where we were when the report was issued.” Orfield was among the outstanding speakers who offered both sobering statistics about the reality of educational disparities today and suggestions for addressing those disparities and moving the United States toward its promise of being “one nation, indivisible.”

The Kerner Report served as a call to action, and in fact, there was a noticeable reduction in educational inequality in the decade after its release, due to desegregation and school finance reform efforts, along with increased investments in urban and poor rural schools through the Great Society’s War on Poverty. Childhood poverty was reduced by half during the 1960s, from 27% to 14%. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 targeted resources to communities with the most need, recognizing that where a child grows up should not determine where he or she ends up. Employment and welfare supports reduced childhood poverty to levels about 60% of what they are today and greatly improved children’s access to health care. Congress enacted the Emergency School Aid Act, which supported desegregation, the development of magnet schools, and other strategies to improve urban and poor rural schools. These efforts to level the playing field for children were supported by intensive investments in bringing and keeping talented individuals in teaching, improving teacher education, and investing in research and development.

These investments paid off in measurable ways. By the mid-1970s, urban schools spent as much as suburban schools and paid their teachers as well, perennial teacher shortages had nearly ended, and gaps in educational attainment had closed substantially. Federally funded curriculum investments transformed teaching in many schools. Innovative schools flourished in many cities, and achievement gaps in reading and mathematics shrank considerably. Financial aid for higher education was sharply increased, especially for need-based scholarships and loans. For a brief period in the mid-1970s, Black and Latino high school graduates attended college at the same rate as Whites—the only time this has ever occurred.

As a country, we must enter a new era. No society can thrive in a technological, knowledge-based economy by starving large segments of its population of learning. Instead, we must provide all of our children with what should be an unquestioned entitlement—a rich and inalienable right to learn.

The effects of equity-oriented policies were substantial for a generation of students. For example, in a study on students born between 1945 and 1970, LPI senior fellow Rucker Johnson found that graduation rates climbed by 2 percentage points for every year a Black student attended an integrated school. A Black student exposed to court-ordered desegregation for 5 years experienced a 15% increase in wages and an 11 percentage point decline in annual poverty rates. The differences are related to the fact that schools under court supervision benefited from higher per-pupil spending and smaller pupil-teacher ratios, among other resources.

Overall, the Black-White achievement gap was cut by more than half during the 1970s and early 1980s. Had this progress been continued, the achievement gap would have been fully closed by the beginning of the 21st century.

This blog is part of the series, Education and the Path to Equity, examining issues of education and equity. More from the series >

Instead, the gains from the Great Society programs were pushed back during the 1980s, when most targeted federal programs supporting investments in college access and k–12 schools in urban and poor rural areas were reduced or eliminated, and federal aid to schools was cut from 12% to 6% of a shrinking total. Meanwhile, childhood poverty rates, homelessness, and lack of access to health care grew with cuts in other federal programs supporting housing subsidies, health care, and child welfare.

By 1988, the achievement gap began to grow again, and stark differences reemerged between segregated urban schools and their suburban counterparts, which often spent twice as much on education. Achievement gaps between Black and White students in reading and mathematics are 30% larger now than they were 30 years ago. Educational shortcomings, plus lack of family resources and cuts in federal funding for financial aid, extend these disparities into higher education.

Today, more than half of children attending U.S. public schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—the highest percentage since the National Center for Education Statistics began tracking this figure decades ago. Furthermore, U.S. children living in poverty have a much weaker safety net than their peers in other industrialized countries, where universal health care, housing subsidies, and high-quality, universally available child care are the norm.

A growing share of children from low-income families attend school in districts where poverty is concentrated, creating huge educational challenges. In most major U.S. cities, for example, a majority of African American and Latino students attend public schools where at least 75% of students are from low-income families. Increasingly, these schools are segregated by both race and class. For example, in Chicago and New York City, more than 95% of both Black and Latino students attend majority-poverty schools, most of which are also majority-minority.

Another speaker at our Kerner forum, John B. King Jr., former Secretary of Education and current President and CEO of The Education Trust, noted, “We are choosing to concentrate low-income students and students of color in a subset of schools, and then we systematically under-resource those schools significantly.” 

Despite a single-minded focus on raising achievement and closing gaps during the No Child Left Behind era (from 2002 until 2015), many states focused on testing without investing in the resources needed to achieve higher standards. Investments in the education of students of color that characterized the school desegregation and finance reforms of the 1960s and ’70s have never been fully reestablished in the years since.

Continued inequities deriving from our school funding systems mean that the best supported students in our highest spending states and districts experience school spending about 10 times greater than our most poorly supported students. While some experience a rich array of curriculum offerings taught by highly experienced teachers in small classes supported by extensive resources, others attend schools where buildings are crumbling, classes are overcrowded, instructional materials are inadequate, and staff are often transient and underprepared.

These disparities, which have come to appear inevitable in the United States, are not the norm in developed nations around the world, which typically fund their education systems centrally and equally, with additional resources often going to the schools where students’ needs are greater. These more equitable investments made by high-achieving nations are also steadier and more focused on critical elements of the system: the quality of teachers and teaching, the development of curriculum and assessments that encourage ambitious learning by both students and teachers, and the design of schools as learning organizations that support continuous reflection and improvement. With the exception of a few states with enlightened long-term leadership, the United States has failed to maintain focused investments on these essential elements.

We can—and must—do better. To be sure, there are bright spots across the country, and many people and groups are working to change these realities through civic engagement and educational change. Hear more from leaders at our Kerner at 50 forum, and see evidence of what’s working in communities investing in early childhood education, effective and equitably distributed teachers, more productive forms of accountability, community schools, and deeper learning for all students.

As a country, we must enter a new era. No society can thrive in a technological, knowledge-based economy by starving large segments of its population of learning. Instead, we must provide all of our children with what should be an unquestioned entitlement—a rich and inalienable right to learn.

Policies Needed to Achieve Equal Educational Opportunity

To survive and prosper, our society must renounce its obstinate commitment to educational inequality and embrace full and ambitious opportunities for all our children to learn. Although education is a state responsibility, federal policy is also needed to ensure that every child has access to adequate school resources, well-equipped facilities, and quality teachers.

Federal Strategies
Federal education funding to states should be tied to each state’s movement toward equitable access to education resources and continued progress toward school integration. There are a number of components under the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that would support this progress, but they need to be enforced. Furthermore, the obvious truth—that schools alone are not responsible for student achievement—should propel attention to the provision of adequate health care and nutrition, safe and secure housing, and healthy communities for children.

In addition to investing in universal health care and high-quality preschool for all children from low-income households, the federal government could:

Equalize allocations of ESSA resources across states so that high-poverty states receive a greater share.

Enforce ESSA’s integrative student assignment policies and comparability provisions for ensuring that districts seek to desegregate schools and classrooms and place equally qualified teachers in schools serving different populations of students.

Encourage states to report on opportunity indicators to accompany their reports of school academic progress, reflecting the dollars spent; availability of well-qualified teachers; strong curriculum opportunities; books, materials, and equipment (such as science labs and computers); and adequate facilities.

State-Level Strategies
In the past, a common state-level strategy has been to offer state aid to offset some of the core inequality resulting from locally funded education tied to the wealth of communities and add a variety of categorical programs that give additional money to local districts for specific purposes. Often, though, these added resources come with extensive strings attached and are not usable for students’ most pressing needs. To address these problems, states can:

Establish weighted student funding formulas that allocate equal dollars to students, adjusted or weighted for specific student needs, such as poverty, limited English proficiency, foster care status, or special education status, as California and Massachusetts have done.

Focus funds on the investments that matter most, such as high-quality, equitably distributed teachers and curriculum opportunities.

Local Strategies
Local districts and within-state regional strategies can also make a difference. Local governments can:

Allocate funds equitably to schools within their jurisdiction and create assignment zones and policies such as magnet schools that reduce segregation.

Create community schools, which combine strong academics with wraparound services, extended time, and community partnerships that equip students with the educational, health, and social supports they need to succeed.

Hire, support, and retain highly qualified teachers and leaders for hard-to-staff schools and ensure they have the skills to work with diverse students successfully.

Preserve and expand affordable housing in neighborhoods with high-performing schools through proactive policies (such as the kind of inclusionary zoning Montgomery County, MD, has engaged in), enforcing fair housing laws, and dismantling exclusionary land use policies.