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Unequal Education

The Department of Education just released its annual study on civil rights in our education system. The report, Attorney General Eric Holder summarized, “shows that racial disparities in school discipline policies are not only well-documented among older students but actually begin during preschool.”

Pre-school? Yes, from preschool on, boys of color are disproportionately afflicted by suspensions and zero-tolerance policies in school. They are more likely to be disciplined, more likely to be suspended, and more likely to be held back a grade. Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to be suspended a second time. They are more likely to drop out, and to end up in trouble.

The report shows that preschool is not a reality for much of the country, particularly in poorer districts. Where it does exist, students of color — blacks and Latinos — are more likely to be suspended. This has been documented repeatedly in older grades, but now we learn it starts even in preschool.

And that’s not all. The report documents a continuing and shameful catalog of racial disparity: Black and Latino students are more likely to have teachers with less experience and lower pay. African Americans, Latinos and students with disabilities are less likely to have access to the full range of science and math courses. Why? Schools with large minority populations often don’t offer the most upper-range curricula in those areas. They’re also less likely to have a full-time counselor.

Zero tolerance. Inexperienced and poorly paid teachers. Less support. Less access to advanced courses. The odds are stacked against these kids from preschool on.

And that isn’t all. Children of color are more likely to grow up in poverty, less likely to have adequate health care, less likely to have good nutrition, less likely to live in safe neighborhoods and more likely to be homeless.

African Americans still have less access to credit and were often targeted for dicey mortgages in the housing bubble, and they suffer higher rates of unemployment and mortgage foreclosures.

None of this is a surprise. None of it is in doubt. The report isn’t a revelation; it is a validation of a “whereas” that is already known. What has been lacking isn’t evidence of disparity, it is evidence of action. The “whereas” is supposed to lead to a “therefore,” but we’ve seen precious little of that.

Is anyone listening? We are condemning another generation to poverty, despair, broken homes and broken families. We are writing off children — starting in preschool — without giving them a fair shot.

We have a continuing racial crisis in this country — or rather, a crisis of class and race. Schools of poor children are shortchanged. And children, particularly boys of color, face even greater odds against them.

We need remedy for these racial disparities and resources for these class disparities. Parents need to challenge aggressively discriminatory discipline practices. Communities need to join together to demand an end to the savage inequality in schools. We need more resources targeted to the schools with the most need.

A sensible public program would ensure the poor children have the same opportunity that affluent ones have. They would get the most experienced and skilled teachers, not the least of them. Their schools would get more resources to have smaller classes, particularly in the early grades, and modern facilities that include counselors and host after-school programs, parental engagement and education. We’d take aggressive steps to ensure that children have secure housing, good nutrition and high quality health care. And we’d crack down on the discriminatory and destructive discipline policies that are discarding our children rather than taking them in and lifting them up.

This is a moral disgrace. It is also a national folly. Children of color are together the future majority, not the minority.

Jesse Jackson is the founder of Rainbow/PUSH.

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Jesse Jackson is the founder of Rainbow/PUSH.

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