School inequality

Richard Siegel is Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno and President of American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.

Are our schools able to provide equal educational opportunity to our Latino, African-American and other minority students, as well as the learning disabled? The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada has reviewed the relevant data, and the problems are evident. We are working with educators and others to explore improvements.

In committees formed in Reno and Carson City, ACLU and school district leaders have been joined by parents, community leaders, students and teachers, poring through the data on student performance and reviewing national experiences with “best practices.” We’ve done this in order to close the achievement gaps between those with English as their first and second languages and minimize cultural misunderstandings and poor results.

The recommendations of such committees must have buy-ins from teachers, administrators, parents and School Board members. I commend all concerned, especially the two school superintendents, for their willingness to devote dozens of hours to this process. Of course, the schools have a huge incentive to close the learning gaps. The No Child Left Behind federal legislation gives them few new resources but puts all schools and districts at risk of being publicly branded as inadequate, if only even one category of students falls below test standards.

Since the fall of 2002, Washoe County has operated three public high schools in which non-Hispanic white youths make up less than 50 percent of all students. And Carson High School needs to educate about 2,500 students, while facing conflicts among some minority groups.

The evident disparities in Washoe and Carson among ethnic and other groups regarding test scores, dropout rates, and participation in advanced classes confirm my fears about the existence of racial and socioeconomic divides in both school districts.

A number of schools around the country have overcome such challenges posed by culture, disparate expectations and inadequate resources to achieve good results for all kinds of students. But locally, the challenges have not yet been fully confronted. We must be ready to change and experiment. Should there be magnet programs or schools within schools? Better use of summer schools? A new or increased emphasis on early childhood or vocational education? Better approaches to attendance issues?

These are only a few of the possible paths. The studies on these subjects are numerous, but they offer conflicting conclusions. No particular answer fits all schools. We must explore, with our best educators, fundamental changes. Our local schools may be relatively good in national terms, but they are not yet nearly good enough.