Civil Rights Abuses Persist in Georgia’s State-Run Special Education Schools

In the October 1, 2018, New Yorker, Rachel Aviv presents the tragic story of a family whose child is trapped and isolated in a racially segregated and horrifically dysfunctional special education system operated since 1970 by the state of Georgia as a network of special schools for disabled children: the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support or GNETS.

Aviv presents GNETS’ role over several years in the life of Seth Murrell, beginning when Seth, a four-year old who is isolated, pretty much warehoused at school, and sometimes abused as a pre-schooler trying to adjust to school. We also learn of the struggles of his family, desperate to find quality services for Seth, who move several times trying to find a better school for a child eventually diagnosed with autism. The parents discover that once Seth has been referred to GNETS, no other Georgia school will enroll him. He will now be assigned to another GNETS school in any Georgia community where they move.

Family members worry about Seth and try to check up on him at school from time to time, including an aunt—a certified school teacher in Atlanta—who is familiar with how children are supposed to be served.  During drop-in visits to the GNETS schools where Seth is enrolled, they discover him alone in a classroom without a teacher; assigned to an isolation chair facing the wall for 30 minutes; locked in an isolation room; and lying on the floor, handcuffed to a chair.  On several occasions he arrives home from school showing physical marks of corporal punishment. Teachers—overwhelmed, desperate, and discouraged—report to Aviv that they lack certification and training. Some, including long-term substitutes, lack special education training; others lack any training or experience working with children who are autistic.

Aviv describes an attorney who began to investigate a complaint from another family: “Leslie Lipson, a lawyer at the Georgia Advocacy Office, a state-funded agency that represents people with disabilities, said that she first learned of the GNETS system in 2001, when a mother called to report that her son was put in a seclusion room nearly every day.  ‘It’s all little black boys at this school,’ the mother told her… Lipson studied the history of the schools, some of which were established in buildings that had housed schools for black children during the Jim Crow era.  At a time when there was an outcry against court-ordered integration, GNETS became a mechanism for resegregating schools.  ‘It became a way to filter out black boys, who at younger and younger ages are perceived to have behavioral disabilities,’ she said.”

This is, of course, all illegal under federal education law, passed in many instances to protect the civil rights of children after the end of Jim Crow segregation, and under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Aviv explains: “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that students with disabilities learn in the ‘least restrictive environment,’ a loose term that may mean different things depending on the race or the class of the student. Nirmala Erevelles, a professor of disability studies at the University of Alabama, told me that, ‘in general, when it comes to people of color—particularly poor people of color—we choose the most restrictive possibility’…. According to Beth Ferri, a disability scholar at Syracuse University, IDEA provided a kind of loophole to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in schools. Now racial segregation continued ‘under the guise of disability,’… ‘You don’t need to talk about any race anymore. You can just say that the kid is a slow learner, or defiant, or disrespectful.'”

Aviv reports: “Data obtained through records requests reveal that the percentage of students in the GNETS program who are black boys is double that of the public schools in the state. Most of the students in GNETS are classified as having an ’emotional and behavioral disorder,’ a vague label that does not correspond to any particular medical diagnosis.”

Aviv’s subject is not merely about Georgia, however. As a federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is supposed to protect students served by the program in schools across the United States. Here is where the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos’s Education Department are implicated. To address the very problem Aviv identifies, in 2016, the Obama administration’s Department of Education established a “significant disproportionality rule,” to stop the disproportionate assignment of African American children—and particularly African American boys—to special education.  Aviv explains: “In 2016, under President Barack Obama, the Department of Education instituted the ‘significant disproportionality rule,’ which required states to more vigilantly report when students of color are disciplined and placed in special-education classes at higher rates than their peers.  Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, and although black students make up only nineteen percent of students with disabilities, they make up thirty-six percent of those who are mechanically restrained—handcuffed, strapped to a chair, tied down.”

The Obama era “significant disproportionality rule” was scheduled to go into effect in the summer of 2017, but Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education has delayed implementation of the law for two years, with the intention of modifying or rescinding it. Key staff who helped design the rule during the Obama era have told Aviv of their disgust: “Michael Yudin, the Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in Obama’s Department of Education, told me that he was appalled by the decision. ‘It flies in the face of the data, reams and reams of data, showing that the problem is massive.'”

There was, under President Obama, another attempt to curtail the abuses at the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support.  Obama’s Department of Justice had filed a civil rights lawsuit against Georgia to “vindicate the rights of the thousands of students unnecessarily segregated in the GNETS Program.” Negotiations were underway in the summer of 2016, but the state of Georgia, gambling that a president less committed to civil rights would be elected, delayed settling the case.  Since then, Trump’s Department of Justice under Jeff Sessions has not made resolving this case a priority.

This brief summary cannot capture the details and nuances of this story. Please read Rachel Aviv’s Georgia’s Separate and Unequal Special-Educaton System.

Governor Cuomo Pretends to Improve Schools: New York Times Editors Condemn His Strategy

If you look carefully at the education crisis in the United States, here is what you will see.  Our society tolerates an alarming child poverty rate well over 20 percent, among the highest among industrialized nations. On top of segregation by race and ethnicity, our society is experiencing rapid segregation by economics and isolation of the poor and the rich.  This growing segregation by economics is mirrored by a widening income inequality achievement gap.  A drop in state budgetary allocations for public education means that 30 states are spending less on public education than in 2007 before the great recession. Federal funding remains low for crucial programs like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; while it was promised that 40 percent of IDEA’s cost would be covered by the federal government, Congress now funds less than 20 percent.

These days politicians in both political parties pretend they are addressing the real problems posed by child poverty, widening inequality, growing segregation by income and race, and the collapse of school funding in budgets across the states by blaming teachers and their unions, compulsively collecting data, and pushing privatization.

This situation is widespread across the states—in Pennsylvania—in New Jersey—in Michigan—in Ohio—in Wisconsin—in Kansas—in Florida—in Georgia, but nowhere is it more evident than New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat beholden to Wall Street hedge fund interests, has been attacking teachers, teachers unions, and “government monopoly” schools.  In late October at a meeting with the editorial board of the New York Daily News, Cuomo pledged, “to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies—and that’s what this is.  It’s a public monopoly.”  The key is to institute “real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools.”  He also made a commitment to increase the use of incentives and sanctions to make teacher evaluation more rigorous.

Believing as I do that our most urgent educational priority as a society must be to invest in improving the schools of our urban communities rather than punishing them, punishing their teachers, closing these schools, or privatizing them, I was encouraged on Monday when the New York Times editorial board took on Governor Cuomo in a serious analysis of The Central Crisis in New York Education.  The newspaper’s editors challenge Cuomo “to move beyond peripheral concerns and political score-settling,.. and go to the heart of the matter,” by “confronting and proposing remedies for the racial and economic segregation that has gripped the state’s schools, as well as the inequality in school funding that prevents many poor districts from lifting their children up to state standards.”  The editors remember that in 2007, New York adopted a new school funding formula to add $7 billion per year to invest in quality programs and to equalize the state’s investment by assisting school districts with less capacity to raise local funds.  “That promise evaporated in the recession, spawning two lawsuits aimed at forcing the state to honor it.”  The Times editors also remind us that in 2011, New York enacted a statewide cap on what local school districts can raise through local property taxes.  Such caps leave school districts without anywhere to turn in hard times.

The editors of the NY Times challenge Cuomo’s strategy of blaming teachers rather than addressing the real issues: “The Cuomo administration seemed not to acknowledge these issues in a letter last month to the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents and the commissioner of education in which it promised ‘an aggressive legislative package’ to improve education in the state,” including “strengthening the teacher evaluation system, improving the process for removing low-performing teachers and improving teacher training.”

Like Governor Cuomo our society has chosen policies that assume we can improve public schools without spending much money.  If only the teachers would work harder and smarter and we could break the unions so that teachers would cost less, then we could have our tax cuts and everything would still be alright.

The problem is that state budgets and school finance and local tax caps have real consequences.  When my children were young and in school and our school levies would fail, I learned in the most personal way what gets cut when school funding drops.  The school nurses started covering several buildings each day, school librarians were replaced by part time aides, gifted programs were axed, and class size went over thirty.   Two recent news articles have reminded me that this same arithmetic still operates when states invest less and local districts are bound by property tax freezes.

  • The day after Christmas, the NY Times published Little College Guidance: 500 High School Students Per Counselor.  The reporter, Elizabeth Harris, describes a shocking shortage of guidance counselors across America’s public high schools.  Writing about the counselors who write college recommendations and put together students’ college application packets, Harris explains, “While small private schools can often afford to provide their students with tremendous hand-holding, large public high schools across the country struggle with staggering ratios of students to guidance counselors. Nationally, that ratio is nearly 500 to 1, a proportion experts say has remained virtually unchanged for more than 10 years… ‘It’s a huge problem, massive,’ said Mandy Savitz-Romer, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies school counseling. ‘Counseling is seen as an extra layer, a luxury.  If I’m a school leader and I’m trying to lower class size, what’s 50 more kids on your caseload?'”  Harris reports that one in five U.S. public high schools has no guidance counselor at all.
  • Last weekend Valerie Strauss published a guest column from Ellie Herman, a teacher and writer who has spent the past year visiting and observing public schools. In this column Herman describes “the most important thing I’ve learned:  Teachers in high-poverty communities need professional working conditions.  If they do not have professional working conditions, we will never be able to narrow the achievement gap between children of color in generational poverty and their more affluent white peers, who often are showered with opportunity and enrichment from the time they are born…  Teaching in high-poverty communities is different than teaching in more affluent communities.  It should be regarded as a specialty because of its complexity and depth.” What kind of working conditions is Herman describing?  She writes: “Teachers in high-poverty communities need the time to meet the needs of students.  It is just simply unacceptable to pack 35-50 students into a classroom in a high-poverty community and then expect those teachers to teach five to six classes per day, sometimes with after-school activities tacked on as well.”  “Teachers in high-poverty communities need time to grade and read work carefully… A teacher with 150-200 students simply does not have time to do this work—or if they do the work well on top of an 8-10 hour day on their feet managing a high-needs classroom, they will burn out.”

It would be wonderful to think that Governor Cuomo of New York and Governor Snyder of Michigan and Governor Brownback of Kansas were thoughtfully considering the needs of the school teachers in  New York City, Detroit, and Kansas City.  I am pleased at least to see the NY Times editorial board recommending that the Governor of New York develop a strategy based on investing in and supporting public education instead of punishing teachers. We need to consider the psychological, social, and ethical impact of school finance from the point of view of the teachers and students whose lives are shaped by governors and state legislators.

Jeff Bryant and Amy Stuart Wells Show How Test-and-Punish Contributes to School Segregation

In an important and insightful piece yesterday for the Education Opportunity Network, How ‘Education Reform’ Perpetuates Racial Disparity, Jeff Bryant examines a new report (released late last week by the U.S. Department of Education) about racial disparities in public schools.

Bryant writes:  “America was shocked, shocked, by new data from the U.S. Department of Education last week showing that a child’s education destiny in the nation’s public schools is strongly determined by race.  As the report in the New York Times put it, the new data revealed that, ‘racial minorities are more likely than white students to be suspended from school….’  But racial disparities in the nation’s schools aren’t just about the discipline.  As both the Times report mentioned… and Education Week reported, when students of color aren’t getting disproportionally kicked out of school, they are getting an inferior education.”

Bryant would like to see the Department of Education focus not so much on the presence of educational inequality as on its causes.  He is also looking for some leadership to show us how these problems can be addressed:  “Shocking data for sure… But surely one would think this data would prompt explanation.  Not so much.  In reporting the data, the Department itself found no fault and placed no blame.  As a report in The Huffington Post stated, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could only say, ‘this data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places’ but not on any policies, people, or other causational factors.”

For more challenging and useful analysis, Bryant points us to a new report published by the National Education Policy Center, Seeing Past the Colorblind” Myth of Education Policy, a report authored by Teachers College professor Amy Stuart Wells who is an expert on the history of efforts to desegregate public schools.  Wells blames the current “corporate school reform” movement itself for exacerbating injustice for children of color who live in urban areas of concentrated poverty—the very children who are claimed by school “deformers” to be the beneficiaries of these policies.  According to Bryant, Wells identifies decades-old civil rights policies such as school desegregation and affirmative action as correlated with higher achievement by children of color, but condemns today’s brand of so-called school “reform” for intensifying disparities by race in school achievement.

Bryant points to Wells’ conclusion: a system of  “reform” that rewards schools and districts consistently able to post high test scores will by its very nature stigmatize schools and school districts where the children are living in poverty.  After all, five decades of research demonstrate that test scores correlate more closely with family income than any other variable.  Test-score-based systems like ours in America today create a competition among school districts—stigmatizing racially and economically diverse districts and creating incentives for parents with means to seek out the homogeneous, wealthier, high-scoring school districts in the outer suburbs.  Today’s  brand of “school reform” promotes segregation by race and economics.

Here is how Wells herself describes the problem in Seeing Past the Colorblind” Myth of Education Policy:

“When the entire educational system is not only separate and unequal along racial/ethnic lines, but also measured, evaluated and then ‘valued’ almost exclusively according to test scores, the correlation between race and schools deemed to be ‘bad’ based only on these narrow measures is high, exacerbating the race-based inequalities that already exist…. First, neighborhood and school district boundaries are divided by race.  Second, the policy drift away from desegregation and toward market-based school choice policies has led to more racially segregated schools.  And finally, the narrow, test-driven accountability system has fostered negative perceptions of racially diverse schools in comparison with privileged and homogeneous schools.”

I urge you to read and think about Bryant’s accessible article.  If you are able to spend more time, delve into Well’s longer report.  Also check out this blog’s post last Monday, Obama & Duncan Merely Pretend to Address School Inequity.  The post explores problems with the same data report Bryant criticizes from the U.S. Department of Education, some of the causal factors Duncan’s report ignores, and what some experts have proposed as ways to address these disparities.