Black students lack access to opportunities, state budget cuts make it worse

Town hall with Jara highlights data on racial disparities

By: - September 25, 2020 7:34 am
coronavirus and the classroom

(Photo by Alexandra_Koch at Pixabay)

At a forum Thursday with Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara, Clark County Black Caucus chair Yvette Williams said despite school officials and lawmakers implementing some policies to address racial disparities, statistics still show Black students have higher gaps in proficiency rates while also being excluded from honors degrees and advanced programs. 

Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 178 to develop a weighted funding formula to serve students in the lowest 25 percentile of proficiency in effort to reduce some of the gap. 

Of the 50,000 students served by the legislation, which helps students all over the district regardless of race or geographical location, 16,834 were Black. 

But the program was one of many slashed to contend with the state’s budget shortfall.

“The Legislature and the governor’s budget recommended cutting SB 178,” Williams said. “For us, this wasn’t the most equitable way to divide the funds. For us, it disenfranchised 16,834 Black kids from getting the services they were receiving.”

Jara said Covid-19 has further exposed the fissures among student groups. 

“Covid exposed the inequities in American public schools across the county, not just Clark County,” he said. “As we come out of this, how do we come back and do things differently for our kids?”

Williams countered the district can’t go forward without first acknowledging how Black students are being left out. 

“Our position as Black Nevadans that it’s great that we want to improve our school system for all kids and it’s great that we want to make things better for all kids, but what we have an issue with is it’s always about making it better for all kids and it’s not getting better for (Black) kids,” Williams said. “If we could just get to where we could have what everybody else has, then we can move on together. That’s what, it seems, we don’t want to stop and do. We don’t want to deal with the inequity, the injustice and the gap. Can we at least hold on before the ship sails again?”

The nonpartisan Clark County Black Caucus has been working for years to address racial gaps and the divide in equity among Black students. Thursday was another reminder of how much further there is to go. 

Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a declaration in August declaring racism a public health crisis, which gave some hope that policies could follow in the 2021 legislative session to address systemic injustices. 

“In addition to the proclamation, he also said based on research he and his administrative team are planning to take proactive action that can reduce and minimize racism, particularly on the impact of public health and education,” said Greta Peay, a former chief instructional services officer with CCSD who runs a nonprofit that addresses diversity and equity issues in schools.

There hasn’t been any indication of what policies might manifest following the proclamation. 

“We hope when it comes to systemic racism and bias in the education system that Gov. Sisolak and his legislators will keep their promise and really address dismantling that system and start to build up a system that is equitable and equal for all students,” Williams said. 

It’s not just in proficiency gaps. Williams said the number of Black students receiving a college and career readiness diploma, a specialized diploma created by the 2017 legislature, is low. 

Only 224 Black students received a college and career readiness diploma compared to 1,467 white students. Black students comprise 14 percent of the student body, and white students comprise 25 percent in the district.

“You can’t issue diplomas or give students a leg up or advantage over other students unless all kids have an opportunity to earn that diploma,” she said. “What we’re seeing is that’s not the case. A lot of our students are not able to access CCR because of limitations at their schools.” 

Black students also confront barriers to accessing advanced placement classes and magnet schools, Williams said. 

Black students comprise 9 percent of magnet high school enrollment this year, while white students comprise 24 percent. 

“There have been some changes to CCSD in their preferences and criteria. CCSD statistics show more must be done,” Williams said. “We thought we would see the gap narrow, but we didn’t see much improvement.” 

She said this is one area lawmakers could step in and suggested the legislature could implement a weighted lottery for magnet schools, something other states have adopted.  

While Thursday’s forum didn’t dive into data, Williams did mention one area where Black students are overly represented: discipline.

“Our suspension rate has gone down 28 percent, and for our Black students 22 percent,” Jara said at the forum. “It’s going down, but there is still a gap. There is work happening in our schools led by our teachers. Do we have more work to do? Absolutely.”

Over the summer, the Clark County School Justice Partnership presented data to the school board trustees showing Black students were disproportionately referred to police

Though Black students are 14 percent of the student body, they were 43 percent of police referrals in Clark County compared to white students who are 25 percent of the student body but only 14 percent of police referrals.  

“Although we have reduced behavior issues and have seen improvement in the juvenile justice system, the gap is still there,” Williams said. “Are we trying to reduce behavior or are we trying to reduce the gap? What’s our focus? If we are trying to reduce the gap, we aren’t getting there.”

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues.