Student Achievement Emerges as Civil Rights Issue in Maryland

Published October 1, 2005

The Anne Arundel County, Maryland board of education agreed to settle an 18-month-old federal class-action civil rights lawsuit in August, pledging to improve student achievement, after local and national groups complained the county places disproportionate numbers of minority and low-income students in special education programs.

The Anne Arundel County schools chief unexpectedly resigned one day after civil rights leaders and involved parties, including the superintendent, signed the landmark agreement September 7.

The Community Education Committee (CEC), a group of local citizens and parents supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), filed the lawsuit in May 2004. The CEC alleged unacceptably high numbers of the county’s African-American students were dropping out, being placed in special education classes, failing proficiency tests, or being expelled or suspended.

The complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. The U.S. Department of Justice later picked up the case and helped mediate the resolution in August.

Serving Students Better

Carl O. Snowden, an Anne Arundel County aide and NAACP member, belongs to the CEC. Prior to the lawsuit’s filing, he said, the group met with the county school board to address the issue, without success. “This is a problem which has been systemic to the education system for years,” Snowden said, “and this is not the first time the issue has been raised about too many African-Americans being placed in special education classes.”

Previous lawsuits had been brought against the county by individuals, but this time, Snowden said, “there was a community feeling that the best way to deal with this issue was from the standpoint of a class-action complaint.”

In the settlement, school officials agreed to help 85 percent of African-American students in the county reach proficiency on math and reading tests in two years. Goals include a 90 percent graduation rate; increased participation of minority students in Advanced Placement courses, the SAT, and academic competitions; and an achievement gap “among racial, gender, and socioeconomic groups” of “no more than 10 percent,” according to the August 24 edition of the Annapolis Capital.

Signatures on the settlement by involved parties and civil rights leaders were expected in the first week in September, as School Reform News was going to press. Anne Arundel County school board members could not be reached for comment.

Agreeing on Goals

Snowden applauded the settlement but said he is skeptical “these major goals can be met.”

Anne Arundel County School Board President Konrad Wayson said one of the best aspects of the settlement was that it resulted from collaboration among the community, schools, and parents. “We recognize that it is the parents and the community that contribute significantly to a child’s success,” he said.

When asked specifically how the achievement gap between minority and white students would be closed, Wayson said, “We have a review committee being put together that will go and look at the statistics and take it from there, whether it’s with teachers, curriculum, et cetera.”

Alison Lake ([email protected]) is managing editor and media director at the Maryland Public Policy Institute.

For more information …

For more information on the achievement gap, see “No Excuses: Closing America’s Racial Gap in Learning,” written by Abigail Thernstrom, published in the April 2004 issue of American Experiment Quarterly and available online at