State policymakers' attention to teacher quality -- an issue education research shows is essential to improving schooling outcomes for racial minority students -- is highly responsive to low graduation rates among white students, but not to low graduation rates among black students, according to a Baylor University study.
The findings are evidence that "the persisting achievement gap between white and black students has distinctively political foundations," the researchers wrote.
The article, titled "The Politic Foundations of the Black-White Education Achievement Gap," is published in the journal American Politics Research. It is co-authored by Dr. Patrick Flavin, an assistant professor of political science in Baylor's College of Arts & Sciences, and Dr. Michael Hartney, a doctoral candidate at the University of Notre Dame.
The findings show that inequality persists when it comes to education reform. "Instead of promoting equality of opportunity, America's system of K-12 education -- which relies heavily on state and local control -- may worsen political inequalities," the researchers wrote.
Surprisingly, even in states in which policymakers were more racially balanced, legislators were less responsive about closing the education gap, Flavin said.
For the research, racial disparities in student outcomes were measured using National Assessment of Education Progress scores as well as high school graduation rates. While there was a period of dramatic improvement after the Brown v. Board decision up until early 1990s, the gap between the two racial groups has stagnated or even slightly increased since the early 1990s, according to the study.
Whites are less likely to think an education gap exists or to see it as a priority compared to blacks. Whites also are less likely to think that the government has a responsibility to close a gap, the researchers found.
"It's when white students are doing poorly that you start seeing state legislators pass more controversial bills like linking teacher pay and evaluations to student test scores," Flavin said.
The study concludes by noting that the most recent and widespread efforts to address educational inequality have come not from state policymakers but rather from federal ones.