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Why the Feds are Investigating the Toledo Public Schools

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Federal investigators want to know whether the Toledo school district treats students of different races and ethnicities fairly.

Jimmy Emerson / Flickr

As the Toledo Blade has reported, federal investigators want to know whether the Toledo school district treats all students fairly.

The U.S. Department of Education is looking at whether the school district is discriminating by race in how it distributes resources, including staff, programs, and facilities.

And the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office is looking at whether Toledo students of different races and ethnicities are disciplined at similar rates and whether the district is providing required services to students who are learning English.

Are All Toledo Students Treated Fairly?

The Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education declined to discuss their ongoing investigations. So we examined the issues they’re looking into.

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How Toledo Gets All the Feds to the City

  • In 2010, the U.S. Education Department selected Toledo as one of several school districts across the country to undergo similar reviews of how they’re providing services to different student groups, district lawyer Keith Wilkowski said. The department says it picks the districts based on several factors, including complaints, news reports and statistical data.
  • The Department of Justice’s investigation grew out of complaints from Toledo residents, a department spokesperson said.
  • Neither department has reached any conclusions about whether the Toledo school district is doing anything wrong.
  • It does not appear to be common for the Department of Justice to undertake this kind of investigation of an Ohio school district: While the department's Cleveland office was unable to provide exact figures, no Ohio districts are cited in its posted list of education-related cases and there are few media reports of similar investigations in the past five years.
  • The school district is not aware of any connection between the Department of Justice and Department of Education investigations, Wilkowski said.

(Of course, a StateImpact story is no federal investigation: The feds will examine a variety of information and may reach different conclusions.)

More AP Classes in Some Schools than Others

In Toledo, the number of advanced classes your high school offers is closely related to how many of your classmates are poor.

Toledo high schools with fewer low-income students, as measured by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch, offer more Advanced Placement classes than high schools with more low-income students, according to U.S. Department of Education data for the 2009-10 school year analyzed by ProPublica, a Pulitzer-Prize winning non-profit media organization based in New York City.

[spreadsheet key="0Ars3eyO0VAaYdDVZTW0wYWJIZk5RSkhNbFIzdnNnQmc" source="ProPublica" sheet=0 filter=0 paginate=0 sortable=1]

Student Discipline Rates Vary by Race

In schools across the country, African-American students are often disciplined at rates far out of proportion with their population within a school district, national studies have found.

Toledo is no exception.

In Toledo, African-American students made up 45 percent of the district's enrollment, but accounted for 71 percent of all disciplinary actions for the 2010-11 school year, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

Of Ohio’s eight largest urban school districts, only one — Akron — has a greater disparity between the percentage of African-American students enrolled and the percentage of disciplinary actions taken against African-American students.

[spreadsheet key="0Ars3eyO0VAaYdF9iajlBWFpobFZVa0FsZWxKOG1fekE" source="Ohio Department of Education" sheet=0 filter=0 paginate=0 sortable=1]

English Language Learners Outperform African-American Students

About two percent of Toledo students are still learning to use English in school. That’s about 330 of the district’s 22,000-plus students.

This small group of students, most of whom are Hispanic, does about as well on state standardized tests as Hispanic students who do in fact speak English. And they actually do better as a group than African-American students.

[spreadsheet key="0Ars3eyO0VAaYdHk0LUxZb0diMThaak4zZlJkWlo4Z3c" source="Ohio Department of Education ((The Toledo school district's enrollment breaks down as follows: 45% African-American, 40% White, 9% Hispanic and 6% Multi-racial.)" sheet=0 filter=0 paginate=0 sortable=1]

Toledo Superintendent James Pecko says the he believes that Toledo English language learners are “receiving quality care relative to the potential barriers that they face.”

But he said the district is trying to do a better job of reaching out to Spanish-speaking parents. For the first time, schools will sent out Spanish-language flyers announcing open houses, for example. A “community liaison” position charged with communicating with parents of Hispanic students was retained this spring amid budget cuts in other areas. And the district is also considering providing interpreters at public meetings, he said.

Next Steps

These federal inquiries are unlikely to lead to criminal charges or indictments. If either inquiry does find problems in Toledo, it’s more likely that they’d be resolved with legal agreements that set out the steps the district needs to take to improve.

“In a general sense, the focus is trying to find a solution to problems identified, assuming the investigation bears out that there are problems. Agreements and consent decrees are generally the tools of the trade in this stuff, not indictments,” Department of Justice spokesperson Michael Tobin said.

Pecko, the Toledo superintendent, says the federal inquiries could be helpful in that they’re leading the district to look at student data in new ways.

“Quite frankly when I go out to buildings, I see kids. I don't see color.”

–Toledo superintendent James Pecko

“We will cooperate with them in any way possible, though [they are] requesting an awful lot of information. Some of that will be interesting for us to look at once it has been compiled. It's not a distraction; it's part of the nature of public education that we get scrutinized from time to time," he said.

The district is engaging in a major transformation this year with a focus on both saving money and doing a better job of educating students. As part of that effort, new distance learning labs in all high schools are giving more students access to advanced classes and foreign language classes, Pecko said.  Eighth graders are now able to attend their future high schools for the last period of the day to take freshman-level classes. And plans for after-school and evening community activities at schools—such as GED classes, job training or other services—are in the works, Pecko said.

“I would advise anyone in the community to go out to our buildings and spend some time in them,” he said. “Quite frankly when I go out to buildings, I see kids. I don't see color. “

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