Racial disparity data should be a wake-up call

Black students are six times as likely to be suspended as white students. On average, black students are 2.2 grade levels behind their white peers academically. White students are 4.3 times as likely as black students to be enrolled in advanced classes.

The figures aren’t from a struggling urban school district or from a Southern district still shaking off the legacy of Jim Crow. They’re from Bloomington, Indiana, the liberal college town where I live.

They should be a wake-up call for officials with the local Monroe County Community School Corp. – and for the entire community. They should be a relentless focus for school board members and for the half-dozen brave souls currently running to be elected to the board.

The data come from a remarkable reporting collaboration by ProPublica and the New York Times. Titled “Miseducation” and published Tuesday, the project provides searchable data on academic opportunity and achievement, discipline and segregation for 17,000 school districts.

The data, from information reported to the U.S. Department of Education, allow for comparing white, black and Hispanic students on various measures – access to gifted education programs and Advanced Placement classes, rates of out-of-school suspension, and academic progress measured by test scores.

Bloomington’s black-white disparities are bad, but they don’t seem to be unusual for college towns. Iowa City, Iowa, State College, Pennsylvania, and East Lansing, Michigan, have similar profiles. Evanston, Illinois, home of Northwestern University, is worse.

In addition to ProPublica and the New York Times, the project includes Chalkbeat, which contributes a story on disparities in access to gifted and advanced programs in Indiana and the steps some Indianapolis districts are taking to reduce the gaps.

It features an in-depth story on the racial dynamics of schooling in Charlottesville, Virginia, another liberal college town. Charlottesville has been in the spotlight regarding race since a violent white supremacist rally shook the city in May 2017. Jim Crow was the law in Virginia until the 1960s.

Bloomington is different – but not that different. African-American students here attended a separate elementary school until the 1950s. Schools are now segregated by economic status if not by race. Poor children are concentrated in certain schools. Middle-class neighborhoods have resisted change.

Two school board candidates, Byron Turner and Brandon Shurr, raised the issue of equity in a candidate forum last month sponsored by the Indiana Coalition for Public Education-Monroe County. Let’s hope they keep talking about it, and that other candidates pick up the thread.

And that current board members, administrators and teachers face up to the reality that students should not be left behind because of race and poverty.

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