Educational Justice Is the Community’s Guarantee of the Conditions for Every Child to Participate Fully

My favorite definition of justice in society’s institutions like public schools comes from an ethicist, J. Philip Wogaman, who frames his definition in the theology of Christianity. His definition could as well be contextualized in any of the world’s major religions: “Justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society. Ultimately that notion has theological roots. If we are, finally, brothers and sisters through the providence of God, then it is unjust to treat people as though they did not belong. And it is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.” (Christian Perspectives on Politics, pp. 216-217. Emphasis in the original).

In a public speech a few years ago, I heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson formulate the concept of justice in much the same way: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

In both of these definitions, justice is defined as society’s responsibility for helping those who struggle. Promoters of school choice, on the other hand, assign that responsibility to the family. They defend parents’ right to choose. Believing that no other institution should overstep the rights of the family, supporters of school choice regularly privilege the institution of family over any public institution.

There are concerns and assumptions here, of course. The most obvious concern is whether it is society’s right to protect children from child abuse in the family, but that is not our subject today. What about school choice?  What are the assumptions being made about education by promoters of school choice?  The first assumption is that all children have parents who have the capacity to choose and who are prepared to make the choice. Capacity, of course, is more complicated than just the financial means, which school choice promoters promise in the form of a tuition voucher. Capacity to choose also must include accurate information about the choice and all of its implications. Then there is also the issue of family stability. Does the family have a stable place to live, for example, and do the parents have the time and emotional health to evaluate all the options, make the choice, and ensure that the child can navigate the route to the new school. School choice is a competition that rewards well informed parents with sufficient social capital and the energy and health to pursue choices.

But society bears some responsibility, doesn’t it, for the children whose parents may not have more informaton than the charter school advertisement on the bus or subway—for parents who may not be able to evaluate whether the choices protect their children’s rights—-for parents who suffer from psychiatric illness? What about children in the foster care system?  What about homeless children whose families are likely to suffer from frequent housing displacement?

School systems  employ staff who consider the needs of such children and to try to design programs for them. And through transparent, democratic governance of public schools, it is intended that the public can undertake to protect the rights of the children—rights that private companies with boards meeting in private cannot be required to protect. Programs that serve children with complex needs are likely to be imperfect because the children they are designed to serve each bring their own challenges. Trying to provide for such children with qualified staff is expensive. In our system of public schools, we have collectively undertaken that responsibility and we must continually strive to do a better job.

Here are some recent examples from the press of instances when the provision of public education has proven essential to vulnerable children.

Early in April, Dana Goldstein writing for the NY Times, profiled a mother, Tamiko Walker, who sought a McKay special education voucher in Florida for her child who had been diagnosed with a disability: “Only after her son, who has a speech and language disability, got a scholarship from the John M. McKay voucher program in Florida did she learn that he had forfeited most of his rights. ‘Once you take those McKay funds and you go to a private school, you’re no longer covered under IDEA—and I don’t understand why,’ Ms. Walker said.” Goldstein continues: “Federal law requires public school districts to assess the needs of special-education students enrolled in private schools. But districts are not obligated to provide those children with the same services they would receive in a public setting—even if a child’s private school tuition is taxpayer funded through a voucher. Private schools that participate in McKay are not required to demonstrate that they use any type of specialized curriculum to meet disabled children’s needs… The state affidavit that parents sign in order to receive a McKay scholarship, for example, says nothing about forfeiting IDEA rights and services. It also does not explain that parents are responsible for any additional fees a private school may charge on top of a voucher, which can range from $5,000 to $23,000.  The Florida Department of Education website provides other materials with more detail on the legal implications of participating in McKay, but the documents are difficult to find and decipher… Many McKay recipients, it appears, do eventually end up back in the public school system. The average length of time in the program is 3.6 years….”

A second example of the need for a public system of education is Noel Anaya’s extraordinary story of her life in foster care beginning when she was a year old and removed, along with her siblings, from her parents’ care: “For most of our lives, we have been separated from one another, bouncing among different foster families, group homes and shelters, working with a constantly revolving cast of social workers, lawyers and case managers.”  Her foster care placements were in the San Francisco Bay area, Michigan, Idaho, and back to a shelter in Los Gatos, California.  While Anaya describes the social workers and case managers, the public schools she attended remain unmentioned and in the background, but it’s clear that wherever she was placed, she was accepted into the public school that, like all public schools, was required to accept and serve her.  We know this because she earned a high school diploma despite her life of serial disruption.  And graduating from high school in California, she discovered she could access continuing public support: “I was lucky to have a caring social worker and a foster mom who pushed me to sign up for community college courses…. I was also lucky to live in California, where foster kids aren’t forced out of the system when they turn 18.  California is one of 23 states, along with the District of Columbia, that accept federal dollars to extend support until age 21…. Another program for former foster kids set me up with college counselors who helped me plan out my education and get an additional stipend.”  Ms. Anaya is on a path to earn a four year college degree.  What’s may not occur to us as we read this extraordinary story is that an education system based on parental choice would clearly not have met Anaya’s needs.

The final example of the necessary role of public schools is in the challenge of homelessness in New York City, as profiled this week by Elizabeth Harris for the NY Times. Harris simply describes the scope of the problem: “The number of New York City public school students living in homeless shelters has increased in each of the last five years, reaching nearly 33,000 in the 2015-2016 school year, the city’s Independent Budget Office said in a report on Monday. That is 4,000 more students than at any point during the previous academic year, an increase of 15 percent.”  Harris quotes Toya Holness, who describes the huge school district’s efforts to support homeless children: “Students in shelter are among our most vulnerable populations, and with the renewed funding of $10.3 million, we are hiring more social workers through the Bridging the Gap initiative, expanding Afterschool Reading Club, providing admissions supports to improve participation rates, and offering more school-based health services.”  Harris adds: “Early last year, the city started offering yellow bus services to any student in Kindergarten through sixth grade who was living in the shelter system. The city said it now provided this busing to more than 750 schools.”  Although Harris doesn’t even consider school vouchers or privatization—the expansion of parental choice—it is obvious in what she writes that in New York City, parental choice would entirely fail to address the massive needs of families lacking affordable, stable housing. The expansion of yellow bus service is intended to help children stay in their original public school without increasing each child’s disruption when the family may move again and again.

Betsy DeVos, our new U.S. Secretary of Education, relentlessly promotes the rights of parents to make educational choices for their children. Insisting that the public shouldn’t tread on parents’ rights, DeVos focuses insistently on individuals’ right to choose. All doctrines of individualism, however, are philosophically grounded in competition. And in the domain of children’s education, the winners of the race are always the children with the most able and stable parents. Public school districts, on the other hand, are premised on the idea that society will do its best to ensure justice for all—“the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society.”  After all, “‘Lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.” By providing a system of public schools, society itself makes a commitment to do the lifting.

Two Wise Articles about High School Graduation Requirements

This week brought two fine commentaries on today’s punitive high school graduation requirements. Stan Karp, an educator, demonstrates widespread flawed assumptions about the need for high school exit exams. And, in a stunning commentary, the Rev. Jesse Jackson exposes the serious flaw in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to demand that students present proof of a life plan in order to secure a high school diploma.

I hope Stan Karp, an educator and editor at Rethinking Schools Magazine, whose column is published by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, is correct when he says it seems to be going out of style to use exit tests artificially to raise the bar for high school graduation: “In the last few years, 10 states have repealed or delayed high school exit exams. California, Georgia, South Carolina, and Arizona even decided to issue diplomas retroactively to thousands of students denied them due to scores on discontinued tests. Although 13 states still use exit testing for diplomas and policies are in flux in several others, the number is down from a high of 27 states during the testing craze promoted by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Karp’s article exposes the flaws in the myth that high school graduation tests ensure that students hold what has been called “a high-quality diploma.”

Karp lives in New Jersey, which still uses a standardized testing bar for high school graduation. I live in Ohio, where a new graduation plan, scheduled to begin with the class of  2018, requires students to accrue a total score of 18 points from a batch of required end-of-course exams. Projections indicate about a third of Ohio’s high school seniors will not have accumulated enough points to graduate and will be denied a diploma in June of 2018.

Karp opposes high school exit exams, what he calls, “the trapdoors of the education world. These are the tests that tie scores to high school diplomas and push students who miss the mark out of school into the streets, the unemployment lines, and the prisons.” He summarizes the research demonstrating that high school exit exams don’t, as their fans promise, ensure that students are “college and career-ready.” From a report by the New America Foundation, Karp explains: “(R)igorous exit testing was associated with lower graduation rates, had no positive effect on labor market outcomes, and, most alarmingly, produced a 12.5 percent increase in incarceration rates.”

What was the promise and where did it go wrong? “Exit testing relies on several related, flawed premises. One is that standardized testing can serve as a kind of ‘quality control’ for high school graduates, guaranteeing that graduates are ‘college or career ready.’  Another is that they have ‘predictive’ value for future success in academic or workplace situations, and serve a useful gate-keeping function for institutions that ration access to opportunity.  But there is little evidence for these contentions.  The tests don’t reliably measure what they pretend to measure—intelligence, academic ability, college readiness—and they don’t measure at all qualities that high schools should nurture in all young people, like responsibility, resilience, critical insight, and empathy. Although the passing or ‘cut’ scores on standardized exit tests can be manipulated to produce varied outcomes, their main impact is to narrow access to opportunity for some, not to produce better preparation for all… Like the SAT and ACT before them, scores on the new Common Core tests closely mirror existing patterns of inequality and privilege.  Expanding their use would reinforce those patterns rather than disrupt them.”

In a Chicago Sun-Times column this week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson also worries about the way high school graduation requirements contribute to inequality.  Jackson examines the assumptions underneath Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new high school graduation proposal to require that, to earn their diplomas, high school seniors in Chicago’s public schools must present documentation of college or military enrollment or evidence of a job. (This blog covered Mayor Emanuel’s plan here.)  Jackson exposes Emanuel’s plan as another example of thinking that individuals should pull themselves up by their bootstraps through personal determination. At the same time Jackson lays bare a serious flaw: the problem isn’t so much each high school graduate’s lack of effort to make plan as it is society’s failure to ensure that students’ plans could possibly be realized.

Here are the realities Rev. Jackson describes in Chicago, his hometown: “Chicago has the worst black unemployment of any of the five biggest cities in the country. Across the U.S., a staggering 51.3 percent of young black high school graduates are unemployed or underemployed (that is, forced to work part time involuntarily or giving up on finding a job). A majority of young black high school graduates are looking for full-time work and can’t find it. The mayor’s plan does nothing to address this grim reality. Instead, it erects a paperwork hoop for kids to jump through that is likely to have very little to do with their plans for their lives. Why not go a step further down the reform road? Establish the requirement and then guarantee every graduate a job, with the city acting as an employer of last resort.”

Jackson compares Rahm’s graduation requirement to the 1996 welfare reform, whose technical name betrays what was intended—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—that blamed the victims for their poverty. Jackson believes the law  failed because it didn’t follow through with a viable way to expand work opportunity: “Emanuel’s plan is a faint echo of his mentor Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms. In 1996, when Clinton’s welfare reform bill was passed, the rhetoric was all about impoverished single mothers going from welfare to work. The plan was to abolish the welfare guarantee and require that poor mothers go to work after a limited period of time. Great, everyone is for work over welfare. But in order to hold a job, impoverished single mothers need some way to care for their children, job training, a way to get to their job—and a job to get to. None of that was provided in the welfare reform bill that eventually passed.”

Jackson concludes: “Emanuel operates from the theory that poor graduates lack a plan for life after high school.  What they lack, however, is a real job or a real training program that would lead to a job. These kids grow up in impoverished neighborhoods and on mean streets. Often they come from broken homes, without adequate nutrition, with unstable housing. They attend schools with massive needs and inadequate resources. If they make it, they graduate into an economy that has little place for them.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s demand that students present a life plan and the states’ imposition of high stakes graduation exit exams do nothing to address the deeper problem of poverty and inequality that almost nobody ever mentions. Rev. Jackson’s commentary in a Chicago newspaper seems stunningly out of place in today’s plutocratic America where poverty has effectively been hidden. Rev. Jackson’s commentary is short; it is a must-read.