Standing for what’s right: Civil rights groups speak out on ESEA

Teachers, through groups such as Teachers Letters to Obama and the various meetings and conversations hosted by the Department of Education, and other channels have been trying for months to get the Administration to seriously re-think some of its positions on education reform as outlined in the ESEA Blueprint and the Race for the Top. For the most part, our concerns were dismissed, almost paternalistically, as already being addressed in the Blueprint. At times it appeared we were not making much headway in moving towards a serious consideration of these issues, but we persisted for the sake of our students and what we know is right.

Thankfully, some other influential voices are now being raised and real discussion of these points can no longer be avoided. A coalition of major civil rights organizations has issued a report titled, “Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity to Learn Through Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.” As I read the document, I am encouraged that many of the concerns I have had about the proposals put forward by Secretary Duncan are also being flagged by other thoughtful stakeholders. Like the authors of the Framework, I applaud the Obama Administration for wanting to move our educational system forward. To do that, however, we need to take a much closer look at what has been proposed, and where it not only falls short, but could actually do more harm to already suffering children and communities.

Here are my thoughts on some of the ideas in the Framework:

1. Equitable Opportunities

“We believe the age of establishing outcome standards without making input investments to achieve these outcomes must end.”

1A. I support the call for Common Opportunity Standards and the proposal for “independent audits of state and district education expenditures…whenever historically disadvantaged subgroups persistently fail….”

1B. I also wholeheartedly agree with the criticism of putting most of the new federal dollars into competitive grants. As the report states, “If education is a civil right, children in ‘winning’ states should not be the only ones who have opportunity to learn in high quality environments.” They correctly point out that such policies would roll us back to pre-civil rights days in many places.

2B. Paul Vallas, Superintendent of New Orleans, stated in a PBS report that he sees nothing wrong with having a teaching force of 50% short-term staff from programs such as Teach for America, and 50% veteran or career teachers. He thinks that’s a great balance. On our TLN Teacher Solutions 2030 team we also envision in the very near future that teaching will be a much more fluid and vibrant profession with people entering and leaving at different points, as well as much more movement within the profession in the form of hybrid roles. The problem, as the Civil Rights groups note, is and will be the distribution of those teachers. Currently, minority and high needs schools are more likely to get the short-term or less qualified staff; and experience much higher teacher turnover rates than higher performing schools. Those two facts are not unrelated. High teacher or administrator turnover destabilizes a school and its community. A better strategy is to establish a critical mass of stable, highly accomplished teachers who serve as mentors and anchors for the more transient staff. This gives the schools both the flexibility and the stability to maintain consistent educational quality.

2D. I have questioned the Administration’s limited support of Promise Neighborhoods in the absence of correcting some other inequities already mentioned. If basic school funding inequities and distribution of teachers and resources is addressed, then the idea of comprehensive schools with wraparound services becomes not only logical but possible.

2E. The groups’ caution about school closure as a turnaround strategy needs should be seriously heeded by the Administration. Some of the same political forces that have perpetuated resource and other inequities for the schools that serve poor and minority children have also used closure and consolidation to further harm our most vulnerable populations.

3. The need for more public and civic engagement on the front-end of education decisions is long overdue. It is ironic that while some deride poor parents for their seeming lack of concern over their children’s education, the policies which were supposed to ensure and encourage their involvement have been underfunded and unenforced. Case in point: Parents at many Title I schools have had their expressed wishes and even votes for how Title funds should be used in their schools ignored or invalidated. As a parent and as an educator I have been among those effectively disenfranchised by policies and maneuvers that meet the letter of the law, but clearly gut its intent.

4. I also support the Framework for urging the federal government to do more to ensure safe learning environments in many of our schools. There is a correlation between the overuse of exclusionary discipline policies and low academic performance. I’m not saying that those who are a physical danger to peers or teachers should be allowed to remain in school. However, there is overwhelming evidence that these policies are used with much greater frequency and severity towards Black and Hispanic students, especially males, than they are for white students, even those who have committed identical offenses.

5. While I agree with most of the points made in the section on Diverse Learning Environments, the insistence on Right to Transfer provisions has always been problematic for rural communities. Sending our children to another town or county should not be the best or only way for taxpayers to obtain our educational civil rights. The groups actually make this point under Section

6. It is necessary to take very deliberate steps to ensure the protection of hard-won civil rights for all of America’s schoolchildren. While the report is right to condemn the awarding of federal education grants to states (or districts for that matter) where inequity has been established, we should also remember the lessons of the “massive resistance” movement that followed the Brown decision. During that period, some state and local bodies chose to deliberately violate the civil rights of Black citizens precisely so that federal funding would not reach those same citizens. Thorough monitoring and listening to the voices of parents and the community will help distinguish where there might be procedural but not substantive accountability.

I’m not sure we need a summit, a panel, and another commission as called for at the end of the Framework to get these things done; perhaps we do. It is a big job and a big country. I am sure that these points needed to be raised and addressed if our country is going to keep its promise to all of its citizens. For that I thank these organizations for once again standing up for what is right.