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Reimagining equity in public schools

Fifteen years ago bipartisan support for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) served as a watershed moment in federal support for public education in the United States. The law emphasized standardized testing and consequences for states and schools that performed poorly. The law was particularly important because NCLB’s focus on accountability also meant that states and local school districts were required to report on the achievement of different groups of students by race, socio-economic background, and disability. Assessments also focused on the achievement of English Language Learners. Many would argue that the law is credited with helping to expose achievement gaps between different groups of students, and it has been more difficult to ignore the education of underserved students across the nation. Thus, it has been argued that all students should have the resources necessary for a high-quality education. But the truth remains that some students need more in order to flourish, and race should not determine school funding. As Alan Singer (2016) recently observed in a blog post, “Kids and schools that need more would get more.”

The assumptions underlying NCLB and now the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA) remain open as does the question of whether equal educational opportunity (as opposed to equal educational outcomes based on test scores) remains the civil rights issue of our time. One cannot ignore that president-elect Trump has called school choice the civil rights issue of our time and has chosen a school-choice advocate as his Secretary of Education whose approach to education threatens to erode funding for public schools. Similarly, it is hard to overlook an Appellate Court ruling in Michigan stating that the law does not require an equitable distribution of resources to public schools. This ruling echoes San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, which in 1973 found that there is no constitutional requirement to ensure schoolchildren actually learn fundamental skills of literacy. As in the case in Michigan, the court ruled in 1973 that the state is only obligated to establish and finance a public education system, regardless of quality.

It is more urgent than ever before to revisit the nature of school reform and equity in poor communities where multiple social and economic factors have a detrimental effect on student life and performance. Fortunately, the Connecticut Supreme Court in Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell has challenged the formula for funding public schools, but the State is challenging a ruling that has the potential to bring about equitable funding in schools. There have been dozens of school funding lawsuits across the country that represent an ongoing debate about who is responsible for funding public education, whether it should be equitable, and the legal mandate to ensure that all kids have access to the kind of literacy instruction that would enable them to be active participants in a democracy.

The 8 January, 2017 is the fifteenth anniversary of NCLB, so it is worth revisiting NCLB’s promise to address the needs of historically underserved students.  Schools are resegregating, (e.g. Kozol, 2005), students living in poverty are socially isolated in schools located in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods, and funding is inadequate. The reality is that many students are left behind and do not have access to the kinds of opportunities to participate in a democracy as citizens who might be better positioned to navigate the very policies and laws that have historically marginalized students of color.

President George W. Bush discusses NCLB at an elementary school in Washington, D.C., October 2006. White House photo by Paul Morse, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Ladson-Billings (2006) has usefully reframed the perceived gaps in educational achievement for black, Latinx and other underserved students as an education debt. Such a view calls attention to the historical circumstances that left many young people without the resources they needed to flourish as educated citizens in an era of Jim Crow and that still has a considerable impact on underserved students in segregated, underfunded schools. This debt also manifests itself in the lack of power and voice in families’ ability to participate in the governance of schools that determine policies, curriculum, class assignment, and discipline. Unfortunately, NCLB placed responsibility for achievement in under-resourced schools and, in doing so, shifted attention away from social, political, and economic problems surrounding, outlining, and running through such schools. The same holds true for those who embrace school choice, which fails to address the devastating effects of neo-liberal policies on inner cities throughout the United States.  It is not trivial to observe that race matters in discussing policies that affect children’s life chances.  And this means confronting what the authors of the Schott Foundation for Public Education report (2015) describe as an “insurmountable chasm of denied educational opportunities” for youth of color who find themselves mired in a school-to-prison pipeline.

Altogether, disproportionality in suspensions and drop-out rates are at odds with the accountability principle in NCLB based on the concept of ensuring the adequacy, progress, and educational outcomes for all students. Indeed, the promise of NCLB in 2002 was to ensure that all racial and ethnic groups achieve 100% proficiency in reading and math. But researchers have found that there has been little oversight to ensure that all racial and ethnic groups have reached the benchmarks set out by NCLB, and these benchmarks vary from state to state. Such a finding again brings to light the question of whether or not education is a civil right and if ESSA—linked philosophically to NCLB as it is—can adequately address the unequal distribution of resources (e.g., highly-qualified teachers, curriculum) that mark the educational experiences of different students.

To reinvigorate the notion of equity and re-imagine schools, it is important to underscore (a) the equitable distribution of material, emotional, and economic resources to ensure that children have the capacity to direct the course of their own lives in healthy, safe environments in and out of school; (b) the value of inclusion in making critical decisions about the processes underlying the distribution of these resources; (c) the importance of developing measures of assessment that account for what it means to teach for social justice and challenges the limits of assessment rooted in the nation’s economic well being; and (d) the need to leverage the law to center justice as a value in education.

In the end, education as a civil right acknowledges the power inherent in education, promotes inclusion, and values an asset-based approach to education that acknowledge the worth of all children.

Featured image credit: Atlantic Express school bus in New York City, 2009. Photo by flickr user mickamroch, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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