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“With opportunity gaps widening for poor children and children of color, new guidance from the Office for Civil Rights in the United States Department of Education offers new hope and protection from discrimination,” said Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund. “For the first time in 13 years, the department now makes clear that states, school districts and schools must provide education resources that are equally available to all students without regard to race, color or national origin. It stops schools and school districts from discriminating in their allocation of academic programs and extracurricular activities, teachers and leaders, school facilities and technology and instructional materials and offers steps to level the playing field.”

Wright continued, “This is the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement and a giant step forward for poor children, often children of color, currently taught at higher rates by inexperienced, unqualified or out of field teachers and with far fewer resources than their wealthier peers. Our job now is to ensure that children truly benefit.”

Edelman’s comments follow new guidelines issued Wednesday by United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter to states, school districts and schools to ensure that students have equal access to such educational resources so that they all have an equal opportunity to succeed in school, careers and in life.

The letter reads: “All students—regardless of race, color, national origin or zip code—deserve a high-quality education that includes resources such as academic and extracurricular programs, strong teaching, technology and instructional materials, and safe school facilities. Today, the guidance, issued by the (OCR), provides detailed and concrete information to educators on the standards set in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is one part of President Barack Obama’s larger equity agenda, including the recently announced Excellent Educators for All initiative, and takes into account the ongoing efforts of states, school districts and schools to improve equity.

“Education is the great equalizer—it should be used to level the playing field, not to grow inequality,” said Secretary Duncan, who announced the guidance at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Public Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. “That means that all students regardless of their race, zip code or family income should have equal access to educational resources—whether it’s effective teaching, challenging coursework, facilities with modern technology or a safe school environment. Many states and districts have demonstrated leadership in taking steps to tackle these difficult problems. Unfortunately, in too many communities, especially those that are persistently underserved, serious gaps remain. This guidance aims to fix that by providing school leaders with information to identify and target inequities in the distribution of school resources.”

According to the OCR, the guidance is intended to provide superintendents and other school district officials with information regarding the requirements on educational resources, how the agency investigates resource disparities and what states, school districts and schools can do to meet their obligations to all students. Under Title VI, states, school districts and schools must not intentionally treat students differently based on race, color or national origin in providing educational resources. In addition, they must not implement policies or practices for providing educational resources that disproportionately affect students of a particular race, color or national origin, absent a substantial justification. The law does not require that all students receive the exact same resources to have an equal chance to learn and achieve. It does, however, require that all students have equal access to comparable resources in light of their educational needs.

The guidance is directed to all federal funding recipients that oversee or operate elementary and secondary education programs, including state and local superintendents, school board members, principals and other education officials. It will help educators, parents, students and advocates understand how OCR addresses resource equity in our nation’s schools. The guidance also builds upon the resource equity guidance issued by the department of education in 2001.