Race, Income, and the Effect on Educational Opportunity

When it comes to equity in education, America is still learning.

by Emily Cardona, PBI Intern

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an opinion ending affirmative action programs at colleges and universities across the country. The decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College reversed decades of legal precedent, upending admissions practices that, over the years, were designed to ensure equality and promote diversity in higher education. Inequality in education remains a significant problem in the United States. In this blog article, PBI Intern Emily Cardona shares her story.

Education fosters innovation, creativity, and societal advancement. Every pupil in America deserves an education that sets them up to succeed and allows them to advance in ways that may not have been accessible to previous generations of their family or in sectors of work new to their family. As a young, brown student experiencing poverty in the 2010s, I woke up extra early every morning to go to the elementary school twenty-five minutes away from my house. During this time, my family warned me not to tell my school friends or teachers where I really lived because, if I did, they would send me to the school in my actual neighborhood – the school that could never keep teachers for longer than a year, had the lowest test scores in the district, and was always on the brink of closure. Unfortunately, students like me are not few and far between.

Millions of students across the United States have fallen prey to the racial and socioeconomic inequities in education that I faced growing up. The American University Radio reports that, across the nation, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education and consolidated by ProPublica, “Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be behind grade level than white students, more likely to be disciplined, and less likely to be enrolled in at least one advanced placement course.” In an analysis of National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth Data, professors Deirdre Bloome, Shauna Dyer, and Xiang Zhou have found that a student’s socioeconomic background can have similar effects on their educational attainment. In their peer-reviewed article, they state: “Before college, high-income parents increasingly spend on preparatory activities such as tutoring and test preparation classes (Alon 2009). High-income parents also increasingly invest indirectly in their children’s early education by purchasing homes in districts with high-quality schools.”

Legislation has been passed to challenge inequality in the classroom. Most notable has been the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 which was designed to ensure that schools nationwide maintain a self-identified “high quality” of education by utilizing standardized testing to gauge the quality of learning in each classroom. Schools not meeting the standard quality of education were instructed to provide free tutoring to their low-performing students or to transfer them to higher-quality schools. The duty fell on the child to take steps to receive a quality education. Many critics have noted that the burden should have been on the school district to provide “high quality” education, and simply handing children off to better-performing schools would not have solved the problems that the original school clearly faced.

In 2015, the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) was enacted to replace the No Child Left Behind Act. ESSA required each state to test its pupils in reading, math, and science and produce a State Report Card that included information on test results, teacher qualifications, student conduct, and graduation rates. ESSA also required states to provide information on their lowest-performing five percent of schools and then provide students in those schools transportation to better-performing schools, should they choose to switch.

The COVID-19 pandemic introduced a new set of hurdles. When education shifted entirely to online instruction in many jurisdictions, the lack of resources and engagement disproportionately affected students of color in high-poverty areas, among other vulnerable populations. NBC News reported that “in a report from NWEA, formerly the Northwest Evaluation Association, which analyzed the results of tests given to nearly 4.4 million U.S. students in grades three through eight [in] fall [2020] and found that most fell short in math, scoring an average of 5 to 10 percentile points behind students who took the same test last year.” Students of color lost the most ground. And while most students did better in reading, Black and Hispanic students attending high-poverty schools saw declines. Students who relied on their schools to provide the resources to succeed had been cut off from their teachers and access to needed technology. The Urban Institute reported that 35% of Black students and 35% of Latinx Students did not have a computer or internet access in the home in the years prior to the coronavirus outbreak. Of the sample of students surveyed, 35% of Black students and 29% of Latinx students were living at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level.

It will take years to understand the full scope of consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on our nation’s children. Still, as we have gathered data in the last three years, we know the final results will reflect the inequality in our education system that existed well before the pandemic and that has influenced my story and that of many other children – brown, Black, poor, and marginalized.

I am now a college student at the University of California, studying in Washington, D.C., for an academic quarter and interning at PBI. Yet I often think back to my childhood, coming home to no internet access and no one to help me with my homework. I remember never feeling supported in my academic journey and wondering why I didn’t have the same opportunities as others.

Importantly, there are ways to get involved that have a significant impact on students like me. As I have learned during my time at PBI, advocates and other legal professionals are at the forefront of this fight, providing students and institutions with representation in court and fighting for policy change. Pro bono lawyers and legal professionals are invaluable assets to passing legislation and supporting students at a grassroots level.

Here is a sampling of the organizations throughout the United States where pro bono advocates and legal professionals can aid in the fight to realize equity in education:

  • Advancement Project. This next-generation, multi-racial civil rights organization out of California works to increase education justice. “Communities of color are too often denied access to quality public education that is accountable to their communities, and as a result attend schools that are underfunded, under-resourced, and often subject to closure or corporate takeover. …[The] Quality Education for All campaign works with partners, allies, and policymakers to secure equitable, high-quality public schools for all children.” Learn more here.
  • Black Girls Code. This organization, founded in 2011 to rectify the underrepresentation of African-American girls and women in the technology industry, focuses on providing technology education for African-American girls. The organization offers programs in computer programming, coding, website, robot, and mobile application-building. Learn more here.
  • The Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED). CREED is a North Carolina-based organization that works to close opportunity gaps for all children in P-20 education, especially children of color. They have the vision and hope that race will, one day, no longer be the primary predictor of educational outcomes. Learn more here.
  • Children’s Law Center. The Children’s Law Center organization based in Washington, DC, advocates for children in many ways, including advocating for needed special education services. The Center serves one out of every nine children in DC’s poorest neighborhoods, which include the city’s predominantly Black neighborhoods. Learn about pro bono opportunities here.
  • Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF). DREDF is a civil rights law and policy center based in California supporting children with disabilities and their families. “DREDF works to end disability discrimination that results from systemic barriers, negative attitudes, and exclusion. While discrimination affects all disabled people, multiply marginalized disabled people of color experience far greater discrimination, marginalization, segregation, and exclusion than those who are white.” Learn more here.
  • Education Law Center (ELC). This New Jersey-based organization provides representation to underserved students across the country. ELC “has become one of the most effective advocates for equal educational opportunity and education justice in the United States. Widely recognized for groundbreaking court rulings on behalf of vulnerable student populations, ELC also promotes educational equity and racial justice through coalition building, litigation support, policy development, communications, and action-focused research in New Jersey, in other states, and at the federal level.” Learn more here.
  • Juvenile Law Center (JLC). The JLC, based in Philadelphia, “works to enforce education rights for system-involved youth, fights to keep youth at home and in their communities, and advocates for educational policies and practices that ensure they are on track for a successful adulthood,” with a focus on helping marginalized youth, specifically youth of color and youth with disabilities, to overcome barriers in education. Access their opportunities here.
  • Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The Educational Opportunities Project (“EOP”) of this national organization strives to guarantee that all students receive equal educational opportunities in public schools and institutions of higher learning. Working with private law firms and community leaders, the EOP has been successful in promoting diverse and integrated learning environments; enforcing the rights of students with disabilities and English Language Learners; challenging discriminatory school discipline policies and student assignment practices; as well as school funding inequities.” Learn more here.
  • NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF). LDF fights for racial justice nationwide. and seeks structural changes to expand democracy, eliminate disparities, and achieve racial justice in society to fulfill the promise of equality for all Americans. In the area of education, LDF focuses on school integration, desegregation, educational equity, and addressing the school-to-prison pipeline. Learn more here.

Every student deserves a quality education, no matter where they live or what family they were born into. There is much work to be done, from perfecting curriculum, hiring, paying qualified teachers, and making it easier for children to obtain an equitable education in their neighborhood schools. Lawyers and legal professionals can do their part in pro bono representation and advocacy work to help dismantle oppressive systems that deny people the opportunity to succeed fully.