K-12 Racial Equity

Benjamin Olneck-Brown 9/2/2020

Kids at white board


Nationwide protests this summer called attention to racial disparities in policing as well as other U.S. institutions, including K-12 schools. Students of color in most states see worse outcomes in academic achievement, school discipline, and other areas. State legislatures have taken action this session, building on efforts by educators and policymakers to rectify achievement gaps and improve racial equity in school. These briefs discuss research and legislative action in curriculum, discipline, school policing and school staffing aimed at tackling issues of racial justice.

Legislatures Address Racial Equity in K-12 Schools

Following the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., nationwide protests prompted policymakers to newly examine issues of racial justice in institutions, including K-12 schools. U.S. schools see persistent racial gaps in academic achievement, graduation rates and discipline that contribute to enduring disparities in adulthood. In recent legislative sessions, legislators have pursued school staffing, staff training and other measures to improve racial equity in schools.

Recruiting and Retaining Teachers of Color

Studies show academic, social-emotional and school climate benefits result from hiring teachers of color, particularly for students of color. However, teachers of color remain underrepresented relative to the student population. At least 18 states have existing programs aimed at hiring, incentivizing, recruiting or retaining teachers of color. Recent legislative efforts include changing or expanding existing programs, as well as creating new programs and studies of teacher workforce diversity. Examples include:

  • Oklahoma HB 2655 (failed–adjourned) revises provisions related to teacher education programs designed to recruit, admit, retain and graduate teachers of color. It also establishes the Grow Your Own Teacher grant competition to fund consortia for teacher education programs.
  • Minnesota SB 1012 (failed–adjourned) provides funding for and strengthens the Increase Teachers of Color Act and seeks to double the number of teachers of color and American Indian teachers.

Training Teachers, Staffs and Administrators

Implicit biases of teachers and administrators can contribute to disparate outcomes between white students and students of color. Teachers and administrators make decisions about student discipline and classification for advanced learning and special education programs that affect students’ educational careers—and which may contribute to racial achievement gaps and other inequities.

States have explored requiring training for teachers or administrators in bias and discrimination and funded programs to provide this training. Examples of recent state legislation focused on training and professional development include:

  • Massachusetts SB 1708 (pending) funds a social equity training and technical assistance fund.
  • New Jersey SB 1856 (pending) requires the Department of Education to train teachers and administrators and monitor districts on bias and discrimination in special education classification.
  • Oklahoma HB 3089 (failed – adjourned) requires trauma, diversity and social justice training for administrators, teachers, education support professionals and volunteers who have contact with students. It also requires district boards of education to partner with qualified nonprofits and community partners.

Other Measures

States have tried to better understand racial disparities by mandating that education officials collect, report or analyze certain data. For example, Maine HR 1215 provides to the Department of Education analyses of the school achievement, disciplinary actions, and special education identification and placement of African American students.

Some states have sought to expand or strengthen existing anti-discrimination provisions relating to public education. In particular, many of these efforts address discrimination based on hairstyle or other qualities historically associated with race, which African American legal advocates argue can disadvantage Black students and employees. Colorado HB 1048 is the first enacted legislation this session that prohibits this type of discrimination.

States including New York, New Jersey and Kentucky have considered commissions, task forces or work groups to study and make recommendations on issues of racial justice and equity in schools. Rhode Island and California are considering legislation that provides students with a bill of rights or handout to inform them of their right to be free from discrimination, along with policies and resources related to bias and discrimination in their schools.

NCSL will continue to track legislation on racial equity and other education issues, and to post relevant and timely education policy information on its website.

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Legislatures Address Racial Justice Curriculum and Standards

Recent protests and national conversations about racial justice have prompted policymakers to newly consider issues of race and inclusion in K-12 instruction. Some legislators are examining state standards to promote racial equity, reduce implicit bias, and encourage curricula that recognizes the contributions of minority groups and the complex history and impact of racism in the United States.

Many states already imbed racial justice issues or ethnic studies into their social studies standards. For example:

  • Nevada requires its Council to Establish Academic Standards to establish standards of “content and performance for ethnic and diversity studies for pupils enrolled in high school.”
  • California requires its Instructional Quality Commission to develop a model ethnic studies curriculum for use in public high schools.
  • Washington recently required its superintendent of public instruction to make materials in ethnic studies available for use in K-12 schools. 
  • Indiana requires high schools to offer a one-semester elective course for “the study of ethnic and racial groups.”
  • Nebraska requires that civics courses in all grades “include and adequately stress contributions of all ethnic groups to (a) the development and growth of America into a great nation, (b) art, music, education, medicine, literature, science, politics, and government, and (c) the military in all of this nation’s wars.”
  • Virginia recently created a Culturally Relevant and Inclusive Education Practices Advisory Committee, tasked with providing standards that include slavery, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia “and other forms of historical dehumanizing injustice and discrimination; the ignored and untold history of the indigenous people of Virginia and North America; and the untold histories of other groups historically underrepresented in American and world history.” The committee will also provide recommendations on anti-bias instruction for students and professional development for educators.

Pending legislation to update standards includes:

  • Massachusetts HB 581 requires including the events of Black history in instruction at schools and institutions of higher education, including the history of the African slave trade, slavery in America and the vestiges of slavery in this country.
  • Illinois HB 4954 amends the school code, adds certain commemorative holidays, and provides that teaching the history of the United States and Black history shall include the study of the American civil rights renaissance and the study of pre-enslavement history.

Some states require teaching historical events that connect to issues of bias and discrimination today. For example, at least 12 states require teaching the Holocaust in K-12 schools, and state standards often require that this instruction be used as a tool to teach students about enduring issues of discrimination worldwide.

A report issued by the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center found that curriculum on the history of slavery in the U.S. varies substantially from state to state, district to district, and classroom to classroom. The center issues model standards for anti-bias and diversity education in all grades and a model framework for teaching the history of American slavery and its legacy today.

Some states and districts incorporate discussions of equity, bias and discrimination into their teaching of civics. All but nine states have a civics requirement, and at least eight states require meaningful civics assessment. The CivXNow coalition, a cross-partisan civic education advocacy group with which NCSL partners, offers a policy menu for legislators that focuses on meaningful civic education, which can encourage civic participation across racial and ethnic lines and reduce disparities in civic knowledge and participation. NCSL recently hosted a virtual meeting in which participants discussed the link between civic education and racial justice.

NCSL continues to track legislation related to racial justice and other education issues, and publishes timely information on pressing questions for state legislators on its education webpage.

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Legislatures Address the "School to Prison Pipeline"

Legislators nationwide are addressing racial disparities in criminal justice and other public institutions. Some of these efforts involve tackling discipline policies in local schools.

Disparities in education and the criminal justice system are linked. Students who fail to complete high school are several times more likely to be incarcerated as young adults than those who complete high school. Black, Hispanic and Native American youths are more likely to drop out of high school than their white peers, and after dropping out, young Black people especially are more likely than their peers to be incarcerated or institutionalized. The disproportionately Black students whose parents are incarcerated or who live in neighborhoods with high rates of incarceration are more likely to drop out of school, perform poorly on assessments, and interact with the criminal justice system themselves.

Some school practices are so linked to disparities in the criminal justice system that researchers have identified a “school to prison pipeline.” This framework identifies “zero tolerance” discipline policies, the involvement of law enforcement in school discipline and implicit bias as factors driving the disproportionate incarceration of young people of color. Although schools have moved away from zero tolerance in recent years, data from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights still indicates striking racial disparities in school discipline: Black students and students with disabilities, in particular, are disproportionately likely to be suspended, expelled, arrested in school, referred to law enforcement and subject to harsh measures such as seclusion, restraint and corporal punishment. Harsh disciplinary measures are linked to increased likelihood of interaction with the juvenile justice or criminal justice systems, both for the students who receive the discipline and their peers in school.

State and school officials who aim to reduce racial disparities in discipline and incarceration often attempt to balance two goals. They seek to prevent students from being stigmatized, isolated or criminalized while maintaining a safe and stable learning environment for all students in the face of often severe disciplinary issues.

School Discipline

Students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to interact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems, and students of color are more likely than their white peers to face these discipline measures. Recently enacted legislation to limit the use of suspension and expulsion or mitigate their negative impacts includes:

  • California SB 419, which prohibits the suspension of a pupil enrolled in a school district or charter school in grades four and five for disrupting school activities or otherwise willfully defying the authority of school personnel engaged in the performance of their duties.
  • Virginia HB 415, which requires school boards to adopt policies and procedures to ensure suspended students can access and complete graded work during the suspension.

Other states are funding restorative justice efforts in schools. Restorative justice practices aim to repair the harm caused by a crime or by a students’ behavior through conversation and reparation with the affected parties, rather than through traditional disciplinary measures. A randomized study by the RAND corporation found that restorative practices improved school climate, reduced suspension rates, and reduced racial disparities in suspensions, but did not improve academic outcomes or reduce arrest rates. Illinois recently enacted a competitive grant program for schools to implement restorative interventions, and New Jersey established a pilot program for professional development and trauma-informed discipline practices.


Research has long linked truancy to negative, dangerous or criminal behavior among adolescents and young adults, with effects lasting into adulthood and predicting interaction with the criminal justice system. Young people designated as truant often are referred to the juvenile or criminal justice system for detention, prompting concern that such punishments contribute to the school to prison pipeline. State legislators balance the goals of reducing truancy and reducing young people’s interaction with the criminal justice system. For example, a Utah bill limits the conditions under which a school may impose administrative penalties on a child who is truant, and a Tennessee bill authorizes school directors to report truant absences to an appropriate judge if the student’s guardian is unwilling to cooperate in a truancy intervention plan.

School Staffing and Staff Training

School staff are often responsible for disciplinary decisions, including whether to escalate a disciplinary action or refer it to law enforcement. Implicit bias among educators can affect these decisions, and some states are considering training measures to dampen the effects of bias on teaching and discipline for students of color and students with disabilities. Pending legislation includes:

  • New Jersey SB 1856, which requires the Department of Education to train teachers and administrators and monitor districts on bias and discrimination in special education classification.
  • Massachusetts SB 1708, which funds a social equity training and technical assistance fund.

States have also enacted legislation focused on school support staffing, encouraging the presence of counselors and mental health professionals in schools or the hiring of non-law enforcement professionals to intervene in discipline matters. A Kentucky bill establishes school safety coordinators and a goal of at least one counselor per public school. West Virginia recently established a Behavior Interventionist Pilot Program, allowing behavior intervention professionals to work with students facing disciplinary issues, and Virginia established a minimum staffing ratio for school counselors.

Data Collection and Reporting

States sought to better understand racial disparities in academic achievement and school discipline by mandating that education officials collect, report or analyze certain data. Maine analyzes data connected to the achievement, disciplinary actions, and special education identification and placement of Black students. Virginia requires collection and publication of data related to incidents involving students and school resource officers or school security officers. West Virginia requires the Department of Education to analyze statewide data collected on school disciplinary actions and develop a program to address the number of disciplinary actions taken.

School discipline policies touch many aspects of students’ lives and have impacts beyond the classroom. NCSL continues to track these issues and other pressing education topics in its education database and on its education webpage.

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Legislatures Address Police in Schools

Nationwide protests concerning racial injustice and police misconduct have prompted legislators and other policymakers to consider the role of law enforcement in U.S. schools. States and school districts are considering whether to retain, alter or expand school resource officer (SRO) programs and how to implement best practices for those officers. They are also seeking to balance the need for school safety with concerns about the “school to prison pipeline,”­­—the connection between disciplinary measures in school and students’ interaction with the criminal justice system.

SRO programs proliferated in the 1990s and 2000s in response to rising concerns about school safety and high-profile instances of gun violence in schools. Some argue that SRO programs should be replaced because they contribute to the high arrest and incarceration rates of students of color and students with disabilities. Others point to the ability of SROs to prevent violence and develop relationships with students as reasons to encourage their presence in schools. Overall, research indicates that students, parents, teachers and administrators are supportive of SRO programs, though support varies based on survey respondents’ interactions with and perceptions of police officers.

Evidence about the impact of SROs on student arrests and school violence is mixed. The National Police Foundation has compiled reports indicating that SROs can help avert serious incidents of school violence. Since their peak in the mid-1990s, juvenile arrest rates have steadily declined, even as the presence of police in schools has grown. A 2009 study found that schools with SROs had higher student arrest rates than schools without SROs. Controlling for the economic conditions of the school, this study found that having an SRO predicted a higher arrest rate for disorderly conduct and a lower arrest rate for assault and weapons charges. Overall, data from the U.S. Department of Education indicates significant racial disparities in school-based arrests, discipline and referrals to the criminal justice system.

In recent months, some school districts have voted to remove SROs from their schools. No state has taken or considered such an action, but states play an important role in determining SRO training requirements, roles and responsibilities.

The National Association of School Resource Officers’ (NASRO) standards and best practices recommend that SROs undergo specialized training in areas including student mental health and adolescent development to inform their interactions with students. At least 27 states require or offer incentives for specialized training for school resource officers. For example:

  • Illinois requires training in child and adolescent development and psychology, positive behavioral interventions and support, conflict resolution techniques and restorative justice techniques.
  • Alabama requires that SROs undergo active shooter training and training in use of a non-lethal weapon.
  • Nebraska requires at least 20 hours of training for SROs. Topics include school law, student rights, special needs students, conflict de-escalation, SRO ethics, teen brain development, adolescent behavior, implicit bias, diversity and cultural awareness, trauma-informed responses and violence prevention.
  • Rhode Island offers certification for officers who complete specialized training.

Recent legislation has sought to strengthen training standards for SROs, increase state-level review of SRO roles or modify SRO responsibilities relating to student discipline. For example, a bill passed in Virginia requires more frequent state review and conspicuous publishing of memoranda of understanding (MOU) between school boards and local law enforcement agencies. Another Virginia bill requires SROs and school security officers to receive specified training, including in mediation and conflict resolution, security awareness in the school environment, and relevant laws and liability issues specific to working with students.

School districts can use MOUs to specify financial arrangements with a local law enforcement agency, SRO selection and supervision processes, SRO training requirements, information sharing and privacy agreements, and other important practices for SROs. At least 11 states provide model MOUs or require districts that use SROs to establish MOUs with law enforcement agencies. For example, New Jersey provides schools with a uniform memorandum that addresses arrests, searches and other SRO actions. Nebraska recently adopted legislation requiring school districts to adopt a model MOU developed by the state Department of Education or a “substantially similar” memorandum.

Whether through training requirements, memoranda of understanding, or oversight, state legislatures continue to address the role that law enforcement plays in local schools. NCSL tracks legislation and research connected to this important issue on its school safety webpage.

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