Addressing Educational Inequity in Franklin County from a School Psychology Perspective

School psychologists are uniquely trained to serve a variety of students with diverse needs. Most school psychologists primarily provide evaluative services to students and support for teaching staff within public K-12 school environments. According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP, 2018), school psychologists can assist in addressing the academic, social, emotional and behavioral needs of all students. In addition to addressing issues within schools, school psychologists are also trained to develop mutually beneficial relationships within the community that surrounds the schools in which they serve. School psychologists spend more than half of their time conducting psychoeducational assessments, which will identify whether or not a student qualifies for gifted services, general education instruction or special education services (Fagen & Wise, 2007).

To the extent that the assessment portion of school psychology is vital to contributing to the educational equity of all students, there are other key aspects of school psychology (e.g. training, competency, research, and services) that affect educational inequity. In this report, the following aspects are explored: (a) preschool enrollment, (b) the disproportionate percentage of ethnic and racial minority students in special education, (c) the disproportionate percentage of ethnic and racial minority students in exclusionary discipline, (d) graduation rates, dropout rates, and achievement gaps, and (e) teacher relationships and engagements. The purpose of the present report is to review these key indicators of educational inequity and explore how they manifest currently in Franklin County, Ohio.

A diverse group of young students in a classroom together working at a tablePreschool Enrollment

Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 “The War on Poverty” initiative contained the seeds of the Head Start Program (HS). According to the Office of Head Start (2018), the HS program sought to comprehensively meet the needs of low-income children ages 3 to school entry, by addressing their social, emotional, cognitive and physical development. Prior to entry into elementary school, 38% of low-income families reported a preference for sending their children to HS preschools. Conversely, 73% of higher-income families reported preschool enrollment in non-HS programs (Crosnoe, Purtell, Davis-Kean, Ansari & Benner,  2016). There are many factors that influence where a parent decides to send their preschooler, one being financial.

While HS is a great option for some families, it is not the only one. In a more recent effort to provide greater access to public preschools, Columbus, Ohio partnered with Columbus City Schools to provide additional preschool options in Franklin County (Gilchrist, 2016). According to local experts, high-quality preschool experiences can lead to significantly different future school outcomes. Ohio’s Early Childhood Annual Report (2016) indicates that in order to receive funding from the Early Childhood Education funds, childcare providers must be “High-Quality” based on a rating score of 3-, 4-, or 5-. The tiered star rating system indicates that the teachers have met the credential requirement and that all teachers have a minimum of an Associate’s degree or have qualified based on professional years of experience. The need for preschool education in Franklin County is evident as in 2010 only 58.5% of the county’s 3 and 4 year olds were not enrolled in preschool (Franklin County’s Children, 2012). This indicates that there is a need for more options. When addressing educational inequity, it is important to consider educational experiences prior to kindergarten, as children enter the K-12 system already with various advantages and disadvantages. School psychologists are in a unique position to address educational inequity that occurs prior to kindergarten as they are the gatekeepers to special education. In their training, school psychologists are charged with addressing ecological issues, amongst other things that may have an impact on a child’s educational performance.

Artistic rendering of the side view of a woman with various things in her mind such as a rose, sunglasses, DNA, a button and moreDisproportionality in Special Education

As of the early 2000’s, African American children were approximately 2.4 times more likely to be identified as having an intellectual disability, and 1.5 times more likely to be identified as having emotional disturbance (Hibel, Farkas, & Morgan, 2010). Other ethnic minority students, such as American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Latinx students, experience overrepresentation in special education as well, in categories such as learning disabilities, developmental delays, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and hearing impairments (Skiba et al., 2008). According to cultural reproduction theory, in the United States, racial and class inequity, at the individual and institutional levels, have been reproduced over time, and one of those areas of reproduced inequity is the disproportionality of minoritized students in special education (Skiba et al., 2006).

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004), each state is required to report on specific indicators of appropriate implementation of the law, including “Disproportionality Across All Disability Indicators,” and “Disproportionality in Specific Disability Categories” (Office for Exceptional Children, 2017). Ohio reported its percentage of Local Education Agencies (LEAs) with disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic in special education as the result of inappropriate identification. According to the most recent report, Franklin County LEAs satisfy the requirements for this indicator, indicating that Franklin County LEAs are not misidentifying minoritized students inappropriately for special education services (Ohio Department of Education, 2017a). The current statistics are the result of policy self-reviews and student records, so this information should be interpreted with a degree of caution. However, IDEA was reauthorized in 2004, after the most recent special education overrepresentation data was presented. It could be that Franklin County showed a positive response to the requirement for measurable outcomes in this area.

In order to assure that ethnic minority students are not overrepresented in special education, school psychologists should be mindful of the following: (a) the impact of sociodemographic factors, including poverty, lack of academic readiness, absenteeism, and perceptions of homelife; (b) the contributions of general education, such as any cultural differences between teachers and students, particularly any “middle class” educational values; (c) the contributions of the special education referral process, including assessments, behavior management, interventions, and the misperception of special education as a resource for “bad” students; and (d) perceptions of diversity, including stereotyping (Skiba et al., 2006). School psychologists are in a unique position to see students through from general education to special education, and they should use a multicultural lens in order to assure that students are referred appropriately.

Disproportionality in Discipline

Between 1973 and 2010, the rates of suspension for African American and Latinx students doubled (Losen & Martinez, 2013). Exclusionary discipline practices, such as suspension and expulsion, can increase the likelihood for students to enter the justice system, particularly for males, students of color, students of a low socioeconomic status, and students with disabilities (Krezmien, Leone, & Wilson, 2014). A study by Mizel and colleagues (2016) found that even when controlling for common factors such as academic performance, delinquency, and family variables, students of minoritized race and ethnicity are disproportionately suspended and expelled.

In affiliation with The Ohio State University Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Capatotso, Baek, and Staats (2017) mapped the discipline rates for Franklin County schools in the 2014-2015 school year as they relate to the Child Opportunity Index Map. This index has been calculated from various factors related to education, health, social opportunities, and economic opportunities. According to the map, opportunity and discipline appear to be negatively correlated; for example, schools in low opportunity regions tend to have higher rates of discipline than schools in high opportunity regions, and vice versa (Capatotso, Baek, & Staats, 2017). According to the Ohio Department of Education (2017c), as of the 2015-2016 school year,  African American students in Franklin County were experiencing every type of disciplinary action more often than any other race of student, per 100 students. This represents disproportionality, because there are more white students in Franklin County than any other racial group, so the discipline demographics are not representative of the population makeup (United States Census Bureau, 2016).

The “school-to-prison pipeline,” as it relates to school discipline, is a phenomenon that reflects the increased likelihood of students who have been suspended or expelled to enter the justice system, through direct and indirect pathways (Mizel et al., 2016). Directly, some students are referred to the juvenile court system as a form of discipline. Indirectly, exclusionary discipline can lead to a disconnection from school, reduced academic achievement, and an increase in delinquent or antisocial behaviors (Mizel et al., 2016). Further research should include methods to break down the school-to-prison pipeline in Franklin County, and explore the implementation of restorative practices that could reduce exclusionary discipline. School psychologists receive training to implement interventions that span from the individual to the district level. These Franklin County data should inspire school psychologists to consider recommending alternatives to traditional exclusionary discipline.

Graduation Rate, Dropout Rates, and the Achievement Gap

Among 600 school districts in Ohio, Columbus City Schools (CCS) is the largest, and it reported the following results: 18th in percentage of Black students in the district, tied for 1st among 9 other districts for percentage of “Disadvantaged Students” (defined as eligible for free and reduced lunch, which in CCS includes all students), 7th in students with limited english proficiency (home language is not English), and 112th in percentage of students with a disability (Ohio Department of Education, 2017b).

At the Franklin County district level regarding Special Education, there are 82 community school districts (charter schools), 15 public school districts, 4 state supported districts, and 2 STEM districts. In particular, Columbus City Schools ranks 88th among 105 total school districts in Franklin county in graduation rate (68.38% – high 100%, low: 0%) and 75th in dropout rate (7.88% – high: 54%, low: 0%). Of the 11 public school districts, it ranks last in graduation rate and first in dropout rate. That CCS is experiencing these indicators of low academic achievement is troubling for Franklin County’s largest school district, and it sheds light on some of the inequalities faced by large urban districts.

Teacher Relationships and Engagement

A literature review on the achievement gap and graduation/dropout rate, published in the Journal of School Psychology, revealed a strong prevalence of the impact of teacher-student relationships in urban and diverse schools. Across the elementary through high school setting, a significant body of literature addresses combating the achievement gap through student engagement and relationship-building by teachers. Wu, Hughes, Kwok (2010) found a significant positive relationship between student-perceived teacher support and high standardized achievement scores amongst second and third grade students. In support of increased teacher-student relationships, Murray and Malmgren (2005) found strong positive correlations between high school students who participated in a teacher intervention program aimed at increasing student involvement and increasing student GPAs. While inequity of education is largely due to an inequity of wealth and services available, there are still actions that can be taken at the teacher level to address educational concerns. For instance, McCormick, O’Connor, and Horn (2017) demonstrated a significant impact of teacher closeness and relationships with their students to their academic outcomes (e.g., reading achievement).


Though much of the research in the field of school psychology illustrates remarkable  academic and behavioral improvements among students in urban school districts, the reality is that a gap still exists that needs to be minimized between the theory/research and real-world practice. Additionally, Franklin County’s demographic makeup (which is reflective of similarly sized to larger counties across the nation) displays at least common issues in discrepancies of race and socioeconomic status as it relates to educational inequality. That said, both top-down (e.g., policy) and bottom-up (e.g., school staff) actions would most efficiently address these disparities.

School psychologists can and should serve an integral role in addressing educational inequity. School psychologists who work at the district or building level should conduct evidence-based and multiculturally competent assessments, interventions, and consultations. The school psychology research should consist of multicultural frameworks for addressing student needs. Given school psychologists’ unique training in addressing diverse students’ needs, bridging gaps between schools, community and families, and promoting the use of evidence-based practices, they are able to create positive change at the school level as well as through research.