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Feds: Inequalities in Ed Tech Resources 'Potentially Unlawful Discrimination'

The United States Department of Education has issued guidance to education leaders calling attention to disparities in educational resources along ethnic and economic lines and characterizing such disparities as "potentially ... unlawful discrimination." The list of those disparities explicitly included quantity and quality of technology-based resources available to students.

In a 37-page "Dear Colleague" letter sent Wednesday to schools, districts and state agencies, Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, outlined the various ways in which high-poverty schools and schools serving a large proportion of "students of color" are receiving unequal funding and access to resources, which, according to the latest guidance, is in conflict with federal law.

The letter detailed disparities in the quantity and quality of curricular offerings, instructional materials and facilities and focused extensively on access to technology — devices, courseware and infrastructure.

According to the letter:

In addition to facilities, access to instructional materials and technology for students and teachers can impact the quality of education as well as students' ability to engage with digital resources outside the classroom. Technology and other instructional tools and materials support teachers in properly delivering, enhancing and personalizing the curriculum. Access to these important instructional resources varies between high-poverty schools that are heavily populated with students of color and more affluent schools serving fewer students of color. While gaps by race and income in student access to technology are narrowing at a national level, disparities persist regarding the number and quality of computers or mobile devices in the classroom, speed of internet access, and the extent to which teachers and staff are adequately prepared to teach students using these technologies. High-quality instructional materials for students and teachers, including digital learning materials, textbooks, library resources, and other materials, promote rigorous engagement with the curriculum, and so when school districts provide these resources they must ensure that students have comparable access to them without regard to race, color, or national origin.

The guidance pointed out that lack of funds does not excuse states or districts from their obligation of providing equal access under the law. Nor, according to the guidance, does equal funding necessarily meet the requirement of providing equal opportunity to students. For example, impoverished schools may need significantly higher levels of funding than the are receiving just to bring their facilities up to a satisfactory condition or to provide adequate computing resources for students.

According to Lhamon, the law will be enforced.

"We are pleased to partner with educators nationwide to ensure equity in education for all students," Lhamon said in a separate statement released following publication of the letter. "We are impressed with the many school district, educators and state leaders' efforts to deliver high-quality education on an equal basis, and we are committed to taking strong action where necessary to correct persistent opportunity gaps that violate the laws we enforce."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan added: "Education is the great equalizer — it should be used to level the playing field, not to grow inequality. 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."

The complete Dear Colleague letter is available in PDF form.

About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 29-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEDavidNagel (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).