Major Civil Rights Organizations Come Together to Demand Closing of Public School Opportunity Gaps

Eleven of our nation’s most prominent national civil rights organizations released a strong statement on Tuesday to support new investments in the public schools, the institution these groups call “the backbone of our democracy.”  The statement is a rejection of the test-and-punish strategies that have dominated federal and state policies around public schools for over a decade.

The statement’s authors are Advancement Project, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Mexican American Legal Defense and  Educational Fund (MALDEF), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the National Urban League, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), the National Council on Educating Black Children, the National Indian Education Association, and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.  It is noteworthy that these organizations—which have not always been able to agree on public education strategies—have now come together to insist on the urgent need for improving the public schools that serve the majority of children represented among their constituents.

The statement, sent to the President, the Secretary of Education and leaders in Congress emphasizes: “The current educational accountability system has become overly focused on narrow measures of success and, in some cases, has discouraged schools from providing a rich curriculum for all students….  This particularly impacts under-resourced schools that disproportionately serve low-income students and students of color.  In our highly inequitable system of education, accountability is not currently designed to ensure students will experience diverse and integrated classrooms with the necessary resources for learning and support for excellent teaching in all schools.  It is time to end the advancement of policies and ideas that largely omit the critical supports and services necessary for children and families to access equal educational opportunity…”

Criticizing the overly punitive policies of the No Child Left Behind Act, these civil rights organizations urge policy makers to “strengthen, rather than weaken, schools in our communities, so that they can better serve students and accelerate student success.”  Accountability must be expanded to monitor resource inputs as well as outcomes and “should evaluate the extent to which productive learning conditions are in effect for all students in each school…”  Federal, state, and local accountability should be expanded to cover (1) equity of resource opportunities including funding and access to instructional materials, technology and facilities and considering students’ needs based on poverty, and culture/language learning needs; (2) access to high-quality curricula and enrichment; (3) individualized services that build upon children’s specific cultural and linguistic assets; (4) qualified, certified, competent, and racially and culturally diverse teachers, principals and other education professionals and including ongoing professional development; and (5) adequate and equitably distributed social, emotional, nutritional and health services.

In the midst of the punitive accountability strategies of the No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama administration’s competitive programs that prescribe radical turnaround programs that fire staff, close schools, and encourage privatization, the civil rights organizations endorsing the new declaration advocate improving traditional  public schools in the communities that serve our nation’s most vulnerable children.  “Students of color represent more than 50 percent of youth and are more than twice as likely to attend segregated schools.  Second language learners whose first language is not English now represent 10 percent of all public school students nationwide, and students living in poverty represent virtually half of all U.S. public school students.”  “On behalf of millions of students and families, and civil rights organizations, communities of color, and organizations that reflect the new, diverse majority in public education, we write urging implementation of a set of strong recommendations for advancing opportunity and supporting school integration, equity, and improved accountability within our nation’s systems of public education.”

U.S. Department of Education Takes First Step toward Regulating Charters

Last week something important happened, “finally,” as Valerie Strauss emphasized in her Washington Post report.  The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil rights issued new guidance confirming that charter schools must comply with the same civil rights protections as public schools.

As quoted by Education Week, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Cathrine E. Lhamon issued the following: “I am writing to remind you that the Federal civil rights laws, regulations, and guidance that apply to charter schools are the same as those that apply to other public schools.  For this reason, it is essential that charter school officials and staff be knowledgeable about federal civil rights laws.  These laws extend to all operations of a charter school, including recruiting, admissions, academics, educational services and testing, school climate (including prevention of harassment), disciplinary measures (including suspensions and expulsions), athletics and other nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, and accessible buildings and technology.”

While Education Week‘s Evie Blad explains that the new guidance applies particularly to admissions, provision of services for students with disabilities and English language learners, she continues:  “In addition to those areas, charter schools should ensure their policies and practices comply with all federal civil rights law, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin; Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination based on sex; and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits discrimination based on disability.”

Does the new guidance mean that the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education has the enforcement capacity to tour the country examining the policies and practices of the thousands of charter schools that may be violating the civil rights of their applicants or their students?  No.  The U.S. Department of Education does not maintain an enforcement staff.  The guidance, however, will strengthen the Department’s capacity to respond to formal complaints submitted to its Office of Civil Rights.

Several organizations that have been fighting for the rights of children in charter schools praised the Department’s release of the new guidance.  The new guidance will strengthen the case of organizations that have already filed formal civil rights complaints about alleged violations, and it will encourage others to be aggressive in seeking enforcement of federal civil rights law.

The Southern Poverty Law Center—which filed a lawsuit in New Orleans in 2010 on behalf of students with severe disabilities who had been unable to secure appropriate placement in the city’s schools post-Hurricane Katrina, after the traditional school district was radically transformed and largely charterized—comments on the new guidance: “This action is especially important in New Orleans, where we’ve filed suit over the widespread failure of charter schools to provide appropriate educational services to children with disabilities.”

Advancement Project, which has led a national protest movement about the racially discriminatory overuse of harsh discipline practices like expulsions and suspensions, commented:  “We applaud DOE’s announcement today regarding charters—particularly DOE’s emphasis that its previous guidance on the legal and educational risks posed by harsh disciplinary measures, such as suspensions and expulsions, applies fully to charters.”

And the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights wrote: “We applaud the Department of Education for releasing this very important, long-overdue guidance, which makes crystal clear that charter schools—like all public schools—have a federal obligation to ensure that all children, regardless of race, national origin, sex, or disability status, receive a fair and equal opportunity to succeed.  This guidance is the first since the Clinton administration to clarify the responsibilities charter schools have under federal civil rights laws.”

At a meeting with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan I attended several years ago, he said, “Good charter schools are part of the solution.  Bad charter schools are part of the problem.”  Despite that his Department required all states submitting proposals for Race to the Top to remove any statutory caps on the authorization of new charter schools, and despite that his Department provides funding for support and expansion of charter schools, his Department of Education has taken no steps until now to promote regulation of charter schools for the purpose of protecting their students’ rights.

Groups across the country that seek to protest what they believe are blatantly discriminatory practices by charter schools will now, based on the Departmental Guidance released last week, have a greater chance of ensuring that civil rights violations are addressed.

Departments of Education and Justice Endorse Restorative, not Punitive, School Discipline

On Wednesday, January 8, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued new guidance to reduce zero tolerance discipline policies in the nation’s public schools and to encourage schools to handle routine, non-criminal infractions inside schools instead of turning students over to police.  The goal is to make the climate at school safer and more welcoming and significantly to reduce what is known as the school to prison pipeline, as young people find themselves in the criminal justice system for what are often minor infractions.

Special thanks for years of advocacy leading to this change in policy must go to an active coalition of national education and civil rights organizations who have worked doggedly for changes in particular school districts and in federal policy.  They include Advancement Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the NAACP, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the Justice Policy Institute, and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.  The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have endorsed these changes.

This effort was made especially urgent when, after the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, more schools began  hiring police guards, called “school resource officers” (SROs) on the assumption that police are needed to protect the well-being of children.  Advocates have continued to point out that increasing police presence at school criminalizes children by escalating the involvement of the police in matters that could be (and have in the past have been) handled by school personnel.

On January 12, the NY Times editorialized on the change in federal guidance: “The guidance documents included striking data on racial inequities.  For example, African-American students represent only 15 percent of public school students, but they make up 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and  36 percent of those expelled.”  “The treatment of disabled students should be a source of national shame: They represent 12 percent of students in the country, but they make up 25 percent of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest.”

In a press release celebrating the change in federal guidance, the American Federation of Teachers noted that in addition to developing better training for school personnel, it will be essential to restore staff whose positions have been eliminated due to cuts in school funding.  In 34 states, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state expenditures for education have not recovered their 2008, pre-Recession levels.  AFT recommends widespread restoration of critical school personnel including counselors, psychologists, nurses, and school social workers.