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The United States Education Department Office for Civil Rights investigated the Madison School District starting in 2014 and began conducting a compliance review in 2016. The Education Department found “statistically significant racial disparities in advanced placement enrollment at every district high school and such disparities were pronounced in the areas of math and science.”
At issue is Madison School District compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VI, specifically, “whether the district discriminates against African-American and/or Hispanic students with respect to access, referral, identification, and selection for the district's Advanced Learner services.”
The Civil Rights Office also looked for discrimination in “access to foundational courses that are essential to prepare students to take rigorous courses and to provide them with the skills necessary for success in college and career.”
The Office for Civil Rights issued a letter on December 29, 2016, describing the results of their investigation. The letter was sent to Madison Schools Superintendent, Jennifer Cheatham. The letter references previous Madison District actions to scale back its use of prerequisites for advanced high school courses, implementing instead a system of “recommended skills and experiences.”
According to the letter, MMSD “proposed to voluntarily resolve the investigation” by agreeing to implement new efforts to increase access to advanced learning opportunities for Hispanic and African American students.
These efforts are detailed in a Resolution Agreement, which Superintendent Cheatham signed on October 21, 2016. The agreement also requires the district to remove barriers to enrollment in AP courses by African American and Hispanic students, and complete a review of its advanced coursework and programming options.
The district’s ongoing plans to address access to advanced learning include “aligning the curriculum among all four high schools; closing the achievement gap; and remedying what the district admits was unequal access for students to advanced courses.”
The Resolution Agreement requires the district to take various actions to implement the plan and to submit reports to the Office for Civil Rights.
Dawn Matthias is a member of the team that conducted the compliance review for the Office for Civil Rights. In a recent interview with Simpson Street Free Press Matthias said the case, including the district’s efforts to improve access to advanced learning opportunities, is still under review.
Jim Bradshaw of the Office for Civil Rights’ Washington D.C. office confirmed in an email that “the process is ongoing.”
Greg Jones, president of the NAACP says it is important to know “what the district has done to comply with their agreement with Office for Civil Rights.”
“Given the urgency of education outcomes in Dane County, the local NAACP branch will monitor the agreement as it relates to our mission. The NAACP thinks it is very important to keep the public informed,” Jones said.
Chris Gomez Schmidt a local education advocate with the Madison Partnership for Advanced Learning, agrees with Jones.
“The Office for Civil Rights resolution and the work being done to meet these requirements should be part of the community conversation and our work on closing achievement gaps. More can be done to make this a transparent process."
"The importance of this Civil Rights resolution process cannot be emphasized enough,” Gomez-Schmidt says. “This work cannot continue to fly under the radar if Madison is truly interested in closing achievement gaps,”
An Advanced Learning Advisory Committee required to comply with the Resolution Agreement has met several times but questions remain about what is being accomplished. Only five parents attended the committee’s most recent meeting on May 23, 2018.
MMSD has not posted minutes from any Advanced Learning committee meetings, and "district efforts in this regard have not been sufficient," says Gomez Schmidt. "Few people know about this resolution, its requirements and the work MMSD is doing in this area."