Legislators are more likely to enact education reforms when white students, as opposed to black students, are failing, a recently released study suggests.
The research, titled “The Political Foundations of the Black-White Education Achievement Gap,” found that state legislators rarely enact reforms when white students are achieving, even if black students are not; it is only when white students begin failing that legislative action is taken.
In this case, the achievement gap is defined as the persistent discrepancies in measures of school performance between black and white students, whereby white students attain more educational success.
“We looked at when policymakers decisions and whose needs they seem to be responding to and we found that when white students are doing poorly that’s when you see reforms enacted,” study co-author and Baylor University professor Patrick Flavin told The Huffington Post.
This holds true even in states with significant numbers of African American legislators and high amounts of African American students, the study suggests.
In his conversation with HuffPost, Flavin gave examples of states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, where students have high achievement rates overall, although black students perform especially poorly. In those states, there seem to be scant efforts to fix the achievement gap, he said.
The study offers the political influence of unions as an explanation for the behavior of legislators. According to Flavin, legislators who would be more likely to address the achievement gap are also more likely to have strong ties to teachers unions. However, teachers unions oppose some of the reforms politicians usually enact when trying to enhance underperforming districts. Thus, politicians are put in a bind.
“We have no empirical evidence for this, but it’s possible that that black legislators are caught between two natural constituencies -- support from teachers unions and African Americans,” Flavin said.
Legislators will only overcome this bind when they “sense an acute demand among a significant majority of the public for a departure from the status quo," the study hypothesizes.
The research comes almost 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated schools and highlighted the achievement gap between black and white students. The gap began to decrease in the years following the case, Flavin explained, however, in recent years that gap has remained steady. He said he began the study in hopes of finding a political explanation for this.
Outside of the political arena, recent studies have pointed to the great recession and the 1980s crack epidemic as reasons for the achievement gap. Last year the Schott Foundation for Public Education found that 52 percent of black males graduated from high school in four years. The same study found that 78 percent of white males did the same.