Archives for category: Equity

Teacher Nora De La Cour writes on her blog that it is time to restore the joy of teaching and learning by abolishing high-stakes testing. She writes that candidate Joe Biden forcefully promised to get rid of standardized testing and restore teacher autonomy, but Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona seems unwilling to commit to granting states a waiver from the mandated federal testing. He did not seek a waiver for Connecticut when he was state commissioner there, and he was noncommittal at his Senate hearings.

She writes:

While NCLB and RTT were marketed as efforts to strengthen public education for disadvantaged students, the overwhelming action of these reforms has been to redirect funding away from normal school operations in under-resourced districts, impose state takeovers and other dehumanizing restructuring plans, and replace community schools with privately run charters. The rampant school closures precipitated by NCLB and RTT have mainly impacted schools attended by the poor black and brown students who are used as mascots by those pushing these neoliberal “equity and accountability” measures. Researchers have documented links between high-stakes testing and high incarceration rates. Test scores have been used to limit opportunitiesfor students with disabilities, another group hailed as primary beneficiaries of test-based reforms.  


The obsession with standardized testing has drained K-12 public education of the vibrant, joyful things that make kids want to be in school. Districts have been forced to cut art, music, extracurriculars, and recess in order to save time and money for tests and test prep. 

The Bill Gates-funded Common Core Standards that drive the current tests have undermined teachers’ creative autonomy, stripping us of our ability to shape instruction around what motivates our students. Instead of teaching whole novels and plays, language arts teachers are pushed into teaching mainly “informational texts” (as though fiction doesn’t contain information) and decontextualized literary excerpts. My students experienced Frankenstein, for example, not as a gripping monster story that prompts questions about what it means to be human, but as a lifeless fragment on a practice test, from which they were required to extract and regurgitate specific information that corporate test-makers deem important. 

She adds, quite accurately:

Standardized tests do not measure teaching. Indeed, the premise that poor children struggle because their teachers are lazy is both racist (teachers of color are more likely to have low-income students) and illogical (why on earth would lazy people pursue positions in underfunded schools?). Contrary to claims, standardized tests don’t measure the skills needed for fulfilling jobs requiring complex problem-solving (although the curiosity- and criticality-punishing accountability system unquestionably prepares kids for drudgery under capitalism). Standardized tests cannot account for the myriad forms meaningful learning can take. The only thing these assessments reliably measure is poverty.

Despite Biden’s promise to get rid of the test-driven policies of the past 20 years, the jury is out on whether he will follow through and he is being pressured by Gates-funded groups to hold fast to the testing regime.

It’s true that some high-profile civil rights groups continue to push for standardized testing–a fact that is reported everywhere privatizers have clout. These civil rights organizations use the same “guideposts for equity” logic Cardona invoked in his statement on 2021 testing for Connecticut students. Unfortunately, many of these groups rely on funding from Gates and other pro-privatization philanthropists and corporations. This funding can mean a variety of things, but it’s reasonable to surmise that some degree of political alignment occurs. 

If standardized tests were actually about ensuring equity, they would not have triggered the closure of schools attended by low-income students of color. If the reforms that spawned these tests were actually about increasing accountability, they would not have occasioned the transfer of power over classroom learning from teachers and publicly accountable officials to hedge fund-backed charter-boosters and profit-hungry edu-businesses

Nora De La Cour has some smart observations about testing and equity, as well as the political forces compelling teachers to do what they know is not in the best interests of their students. This post is well worth a read!

Civil rights groups, led by the Southern Education Foundation, are opposing the voucher legislation proposed by Republicans in Georgia.

SEF leads opposition to education savings account bill introduced in Georgia legislature

One of the first pieces of legislation introduced in the Georgia legislature in 2021 was the Georgia Educational Scholarship Act (HB60), a bill that would divert taxpayer dollars to private schools. In February, SEF and nine other education and equity-focused organizations sent a letter to the Georgia House Committee on Education expressing concerns that HB60 would divert funds from public education at a time when schools can least afford to lose it, and further perpetuate inequities.

SEF prepared analysis of the bill and a backgrounder on academic outcomes and participation requirements for similar tax credit scholarship programs across the country.

SEF’s Legislative and Research Analyst also provided testimony to the Senate Education and Youth Committee on SB47, a proposed expansion of the state’s existing special needs voucher program.

Imagine a state that adopts a state constitutional amendment that ties student rights to an education to their test scores. Would anyone be so dumb as to imagine that the test scores of students of different races would change because of a constitutional amendment? Remember that Minnesota was the first state to pass a charter law, promising to close the academic gaps. That was in 1992. Thirty years later, the state’s Big Thinkers are still grasping at straws.

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EDUCATION EXPERTS AND SCHOLARS: PROPOSED MINNESOTA CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT THREATENS STUDENTS’ RIGHTSFOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE


Today, prominent experts on constitutional law and education sent a letter to Minnesota legislators voicing significant concerns that a proposal to amend the Minnesota Constitution would undermine and weaken students’ right to public education. 
In January 2020, the Minneapolis Federal Reserve proposed to eliminate the current guarantee of a free public education in the Minnesota State Constitution and replace it with language to make education “a fundamental right” to “quality schools” to be “measured against uniform achievement standards set forth by the state.” 


Proponents of the change contend that this new language would reduce gaps in achievement between Minnesota’s white students and students of color. A proposed bill to amend the constitution, H.F. 874, was introduced in the Minnesota House of Representatives on February 8.


In their letter, nationally known constitutional scholars and education law experts outline the negative effects the proposed amendment would have on Minnesota students’ right to public education. The letter explains that while “efforts to strengthen education rights” are welcomed, current Minnesota law already recognizes the rights contained in the amendment. 


The letter points out that the proposed amendment adds new language that may well undermine existing constitutional protections. Most notably, the amendment explicitly links the right to education to state achievement standards, a focus that “may encourage courts to measure rights through the narrow lens of tested academic achievement,” according to the scholars and experts.


In addition, the proposed amendment would eliminate core obligations imposed by the Minnesota Constitution on the state legislature to establish and maintain a statewide system of public schools. These include the requirement that the school system be “general and uniform” and “thorough and efficient.” The letter notes that, in 2018, the Minnesota Supreme Court interpreted this language as prohibiting schools segregated by race, a ruling that is considered “one of the most unqualified restrictions on school segregation that can be found in American law.” The scholars and experts underscore that the proposed amendment could endanger this crucial decision advancing racial justice. 


The letter concludes that “the Federal Reserve’s proposed amendment to the Minnesota education clause threatens to reduce, rather than increase, the rights of Minnesota students.”


Signatories include professors from Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, Rutgers, the University of the District of Columbia, University of Colorado, University of North Carolina, University of South Carolina, Michigan State University, West Virginia University, Loyola University New Orleans, and the directors of several national civil rights organizations.


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Distinguished economist Helen Ladd and her husband, journalist Edward Fiske, studied the accountability system for charter schools in Massachusetts. They specifically addressed equity issues of access, fairness, and availability of a high-quality education, not test scores. They found considerable variation among charter schools, as one would expect. They also found that some charter schools had unusually high attrition rates and unusually high suspension rates. These should concern policy makers, whose goal is to offer better opportunities for disadvantaged students. Their aim in writing the paper is to alert policymakers to the value of an equity-oriented accountability system that goes beyond test scores.

Historian of education Christina Groeger writes that Americans have long believed that education is the key to equality, but she thinks that this faith is misplaced.

She writes:

“The best way to increase wages and reduce wage inequalities in the long run is to invest in education and skills,” wrote economist Thomas Piketty in his landmark Capital in the Twenty-First Century. For nearly 200 years, education has been seen as a central means of reducing the gap between rich and poor. Today, this idea has become something of a national faith, as politicians across the political spectrum tout the power of education to shape a more egalitarian society. However, faith in educational expansion as a means of achieving the American Dream has obscured the ways the same process has in fact deepened economic inequality at different historical moments. If we don’t explore its full consequences, education as a policy tool can become a dangerous trap.

In the U.S., the relationship between education and social inequality points to a paradox. On the one hand, the U.S. has long had among the highest rates of school enrollment and attainment in the world. In 2017, the United States ranked second-highest globally for the average years of schooling for individuals over the age of 25. On the other hand, the U.S. currently has one of the highest rates of social inequality and lowest rates of social mobility in the Global North. In sum, even though many Americans are getting educated at unusually high rates, the U.S. economy is extremely polarized between the 1% and the rest. If education were indeed the great equalizer, this could not be true.

This seeming paradox stems from the fact that the American educational system and the modern corporate economy grew up together and mutually shaped one another from the start.

After briefly reviewing the importance of education in opening up new opportunities for clerical and sales workers and for white collar workers, she maintains that education does not produce equality.

The uneasy truth is that educational solutions often were and are politically palatable to those with the most economic power precisely because they do not directly threaten that power. Educational solutions have tended to place the burden of reform onto individuals to improve their skill level, rather than the larger structure of a vastly unequal economy. The notion that we can “upskill” our way out of an unequal economy, however, misdirects our attention away from the role of employers and economic elites in maintaining their immense workplace authority.

Between the 1940s and 1970s, inequality fell. What role did education play? Many scholars have attributed the decline in social inequality to massive public investment in education. However, the mid-20th century decline had to do with much more than just education. Particularly important was the power of new industrial unions. Unlike exclusive craft unions, industrial unions organized workplaces across lines of skill, race, ethnicity, and gender, reaching a peak of 36% of all private sector workers by 1953. Organized workers became the mass base of support for public policies like a high progressive income tax and social welfare programs. The expansion of public education on its own would not have been able to account for the significant decline in inequality in this period; rather, the growth of worker power, economically and politically, was the primary driver of these changes.

Since the 1970s, workers’ rights have been stripped away, unionization rates have fallen to a mere 6% of private sector workers, budgets for public services have been slashed, and the wealthy pay less in taxes. The economy is increasingly polarized between low-wage service jobs performed disproportionately by women and people of color, on the one hand, and the professional beneficiaries of the “knowledge economy” on the other. The history of the early twentieth century teaches us that there is nothing inherent in educational expansion that means its economic benefits will be equally distributed. In fact, as we are seeing today in the highly-credentialed fields of financial services, corporate law, and specialized medicine, when worker power is at an all-time low, educational expansion without additional protections can simply concentrate the power of existing elites.

The meaning and significance of education is much greater than economic advancement. But until economic subsistence is addressed, education will be tied to these vocational ends, understandably for so many students for whom education is a means of securing a living. If we want to free education up for non-vocational ends, we need to ensure that all people can achieve a livelihood first.

School expansion must be coupled with efforts that build worker power, which historically has been the basis of a more egalitarian society. These include building strong and inclusive unions, raising the minimum wage, expanding social welfare programs, and implementing the progressive taxation necessary to fund them. The collective power of workers, not education level, is ultimately what will matter most for creating a more egalitarian society.

Thus, we can understand the ongoing barrage of attacks on teachers’ unions and the growth of nonunion charter schools as efforts by elites to prevent workers from having any power and from building the egalitarian society that is part of our national creed.

Jan Resseger reminds us of the traditional Masai greeting, “How are the children?” The assumption is that if the children are well, the village or society is well. Many of our children are not well. Too many live in poverty and lack adequate nutrition, decent medical care, and a safe place to live.

Sadly, as Jan explains, the Republican moderates who asked Biden to cut his COVID relief package focused their cuts on aid to children.

She begins:

This week a group of so-called moderate U.S. Senate Republicans proposed to negotiate with President Joe Biden about his proposed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan stimulus bill.  But even the ten senators, who profess themselves to be moderates and who came forward with a $618 billion alternative proposal, proved themselves willing to neglect the needs of America’s children. The United States, the world’s richest nation, posts an alarming child poverty rate, but, apart from the voices of a handful of social justice advocates, any level of concern about child poverty is inaudible. Hardly anybody seems to have noticed that one of the great strengths of Biden’s American Rescue Plan is the President’s inclusion of funding for programs that would significantly ameliorate suffering among America’s poorest children.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Chuck Marr did recently recognize the significanceof the pro-child provisions in Biden’s new American Rescue Plan: “President Biden’s $1.9 trillion emergency relief plan includes a Child Tax Credit expansion that would lift 9.9 million children above or closer to the poverty line, including 2.3 million Black children, 4.1 million Latino children, and 441,000 Asian American children. It also would lift 1.1 million children out of ‘deep poverty,’ raising their family incomes above 50 percent of the poverty line. To do that, the Biden plan would make the credit fully available to 27 million children—including roughly half of all Black and Latino children—whose families now don’t get the full credit because their parents don’t earn enough….”

Do Republicans not care about our children? Why is military spending more desirable than spending to save the lives of the neediest and most helpless?

Everyone should read The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, which demonstrates that societies are happier when there is more equality.

Matt Farmer is a lawyer, public school parent, and occasional songwriter who lives in Chicago. Matt had been writing articles about the needs of the public schools in Chicago when he got a message on December 22, 2011, from CTU President Karen Lewis. He had never met her. She wrote:

 “I am truly, madly deeply in love with your soul. May I buy you lunch early next year?” 

He couldn’t resist, of course. They met and became fast friends.

He wrote about his remarkable friend:

Karen was funny as hell (she’d done some stand-up comedy in the past). Like me, she was an absolute music geek. And when it came to caring about students and teachers, she took a back seat to no one.

I was honored to attend her bat mitzvah in June 2013, and I was proud to go door-to-door fifteen months later to circulate petitions for her brief mayoral run, which was quickly derailed by an October 2014 brain cancer diagnosis.

On May 23, 2012, at a meeting of CTU delegates, Matt Farmer conducted a mock trial of billionaire heiress Penny Pritzker, who was a member of Rahm Emanuel’s school board and later served as President Obama’s Secretary of Commerce.

Matt compared Penny Pritzker’s concept of what Chicago school children were entitled to receive (workforce preparation) with the rich curriculum, library, arts programs, and other necessities at the school her own children (and Rahm’s children) attended, the University of Chicago Lab School. Matt Farmer brought the house down. Sitting behind him is Karen Lewis and Jesse Jackson. It is a tour de force and you must watch! If you do one thing this day, watch this five-minute “trial.”

In 2015, I wrote about a group of high school students in Houston who sued the state for underfunding public schools. Valerie Strauss wrote about them too. She wrote: ““The two students who filed the brief on behalf of the HISD Student Congress, an organization that represents about 215,000 students in the district, are Zaakir Tameez, a member of the 2015 class of Carnegie Vanguard High School, and Amy Fan, a member of the 2016 class of Bellaire High School.”

I have always believed that students have more power than they know and they need to speak up about their education.

The two young people who founded the HISD Student Congress–Tameez and Fan–filed an excellent brief, but their appeal on behalf of underfunded school districts was rejected 9-0 by the Texas Supreme Court, which is elected statewide and consists of Republicans. The court complimented the students on their brief on page 24 of the ruling, footnote 100:  “High school students Zaakir Tameez and Amy Fan, with the help of other students, have filed an excellent amicus brief.”

These are remarkable young people, our hope for the future.

After graduating from HISD, Amy Fan went to Duke University, where she graduated in 2020. She returned to Houston and is now the official advisor to HISD StuCon. She helped co-found a local civic engagement collective with other HISD StuCon alumni called Institute of Engagement. They just launched Shift Press, an online publication for Houston youth to tell their stories. 

Zaakir Tameez is a remarkable young man. After he graduated from high school, he enrolled at the University of Virginia. He was an intern with the President of the University of Virginia and with Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz. After his graduation, he was selected as a Fulbright Scholar and is currently studying in the UK. He will begin Yale Law School in the fall.

So much for the detractors of Houston public schools!

Zaakir Tameez recently wrote to alert me that the school district (HISD) is trying to take control of the HISD Youth Congress away from students.

HISD is now trying to take over the Student Congress and replace it with a “district-sanctioned vehicle” that operates “under the direction” of administrators. In other words, district staff recommended that the board dissolve the student-run, student-led group that has been operating for seven years now to create something new that they can control. 

It would mean so much to us if you could speak on this – a short blog post, or even a tweet. We are trying to raise awareness to fight back. It’s a sad situation, really. We’ve spent years advocating for greater funding & resources for HISD and to prevent the board takeover that is being planned by the State of Texas. 

But then, this. Without any heads up, they are attempting to take us over.  Not one board member or member of district staff has reached out to us yet to inform us of the resolution. I am attaching the resolution text and an FAQ on the situation…Your response would be so greatly appreciated. We’re proud that you came from the same schools that we did. 




I reviewed three books in the New York Review of Books, which seemed to me to be complementary.

Together they offer a fresh interpretation of the history of public education and of school choice.

The choice zealots would have you believe that they want to “save poor kids from failing public schools,” but the history of school choice tells a very different story. School choice began as the rallying cry of Southern segregationists, determined to prevent desegregation and integration of their schools.

School choice was their response to the Brown Decision of 1954.

The states of the South passed law after law shifting public funds to private schools, so that white students could avoid going to school with black children.

Libertarian economist Milton Friedman published an essay in 1955 on “The Role of Government in Education” in which he argued for vouchers and school choice. He said that under his approach, whites could go to school with whites, blacks could go to school with blacks, and anyone who wanted a mixed-race school could make that choice. Given the state of racism in the South, his formula would have been translated by white Senators, Governors, and legislatures as a formula to maintain racial segregation forever. They loved his ideas, and they adopted his rhetoric.

The best way to remove the cobwebs in your mind, the ones planted by libertarian propaganda, is to read the three books reviewed here:

Katharine Stewart: The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism

Steve Suitts: Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement

Derek W. Black: Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy

Arthur Camins reviews recent political history as a way to understand how Democrats lost their principles and values.

Democrats became the party identified with both civil rights and labor, if tepidly on both counts. However, they never fully embraced a multiracial movement for social and economic justice. Neither movement overcame mutual distrust. Segments of working- and middle-class Americans who found economic success in the post-war period began to experience social and economic insecurity. They responded positively to Republicans’ full-frontal law and order, anti-government racist appeals.  In response, a group of Democrats identified as the Democratic Leadership Council offered a counter-strategy to gain or maintain diminishing influence.  In essence, it amounted to acting more like Republicans in language and policy.  They welcomed corporate campaign contributions and deregulation, backed away from integration, became less pro-union, embraced the conservative rhetoric of personal responsibility, public-private partnerships, and individual choice and competition in both education and healthcare.

At the same time, disparate movements for women’s, LGTBQ, and marriage rights, and protecting the environment met with some success and shifted predominant values but did not coalesce into a broader unifying movement for change.

While Democrats did elect Clinton and Obama as two-term presidents, they lost control of the majority of statehouses.  Even the momentous election of the first Black president did not fundamentally alter Republican political or ideological hegemony. The Democratic strategy amounted to concessions on big ideas and values.  Their compromises on the core idea that government is responsible for the well-being of all failed.  They continually repeated, “Chance to climb the latter of success if you work hard and play by the rules,” rhetoric. As the saying goes, you can’t be a little bit pregnant.  Either a political party represents full support for equity and democracy or not. Republicans controlled the terms of the debate. The result of the Democrats’ a little-bit progressive and a little-bit conservative strategy was a loss of credibility with great swaths of Americans.

Centrism and neoliberalism left the Democrats as an empty vessel, offering nothing substantially different from Republicans. Then came Trumpism, with its full-throated embrace of the worst, most hateful strains in American political life.

The only Democratic answer to the lived precariousness with which too many struggle is to fight for and establish security for all with no exceptions.  Programs pitched to help some but not all, such as the Affordable Care Act or charter schools, divide and alienate rather than unify.

The enabling ideas of racist appeals are that inequity is inevitable, whites and the wealthy are more worthy than people of color and the poor, and that their gain must come at the expense of white people. Ensuring a decent life for all and the unified struggle required to attain it cannot happen without a direct reckoning with the divisive role of white supremacy.  Acting to challenge this explicitly in ideas and deed is the only answer to Trumpism.