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Why Civil Rights Groups Oppose the Obama Agenda

Dear Deborah,

In late July, the nation's leading civil rights organizations issued a withering critique of the Obama administration's education policies. Did you see it? It would be understandable if most people never even heard about it because of the circumstances under which it was released. The statement was issued by the NAACP, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the National Urban League, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the National Coalition for Educating Black Children, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Schott Foundation for Public Education. The press briefing was canceled at the last minute, when the leaders were invited to meet with Secretary Arne Duncan at the very hour they had scheduled their press briefing.

The statement—titled "Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity to Learn"—got little media coverage, but its detractors got plenty. Columnist Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post castigated the civil rights groups for daring to challenge President Obama, as did an editorial in The Wall Street Journal titled "Civil rights groups choose the teachers unions over black kids." (Subscription required for full text.) A hedge-fund manager associated with the pro-charter group "Democrats for Education Reform" called the civil rights leaders "gutless weasels" and accused them of putting the interests of the teachers' unions over the future of minority children.

The only thoughtful reprise of the 17-page document was in Valerie Strauss's blog in The Washington Post, The Answer Sheet, where she explained its main points ("Civil Rights Groups Skewer Obama Education Policy"). Strauss, who is now our nation's most indispensable education journalist, summarized the report in these words: "Dear President Obama, you say you believe in an equal education for all students, but you are embarking on education policies that will never achieve that goal and that can do harm to America's school children, especially its neediest. Stop before it is too late."

I hope that our readers will forget the invective directed against the authors of this report. Read it. It contains wisdom and good sense, both as a warning about the errors of current and proposed policies and as a roadmap for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The report criticizes the Obama administration's embrace of competition for federal funding, as in Race to the Top, as well as its intention to make future funding for Title I competitive. The civil rights groups point out that competition cannot provide equal opportunity and that millions of minority children will see no benefit from federal funding if they happen to be in states or districts that lose the competition. The principle of our education system, toward which we fitfully strive, is equality of educational opportunity, not winner take all and the devil take the hindmost.

Instead of fostering competition for federal funding, which was never the intent of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the report recommends federal "common resource opportunity standards" that would enhance and support common outcome standards. Specifically, the groups want the federal government to require states to make progress towards resource equity and "to ensure, at a minimum, that all students have access to early-childhood education, highly effective teachers, college-ready preparatory curricula, and equitable instructional resources."

Secretary Arne Duncan often says that "education is a civil right," but if that is the case, then states and districts should not have to compete for federal funding to guarantee the civil rights of their students. Logic suggests that the neediest students should have the greatest claim on federal funding. But, as we saw in Race to the Top, the children in 39 states saw no benefit at all from billions in federal education spending. Poor and minority children in states such as Mississippi, Alabama, California, Texas, Louisiana, and Illinois were left out. If the money were truly intended to strengthen education as a civil right, then it should have gone to those who needed it most, not to those who wrote the best proposal or had the best consultants. "The civil right to a high-quality education," say the civil rights groups, "is connected to individuals, not the states, and federal policy should be framed accordingly." By delivering extra funding to states that compete and win, they warn, "the majority of low-income and minority students will be left behind."

Nor were the civil rights groups complimentary about other components of the Obama education agenda. They complained that: "For far too long, communities of color have been testing grounds for unproven methods of educational change while all levels of government have resisted the tough decisions required to expand access to effective educational methods." Instead of providing high-quality, early-childhood education and supporting policies that would provide "a stable supply of experienced, highly effective teachers," current reforms are "stop-gap" measures that rely on "quick fixes" and "offer no real long-term strategy for effective systemic change." The absence of these strategies in affluent communities indicates "the marginal nature of this approach."

These "quick-fix" strategies include closing schools, which is a central feature of the Obama-Duncan education agenda. Although, as the report says, this strategy has little or no evidence to support it, it will be inflicted primarily on low-income and minority communities. School closings have "increased disruption but ha[ve] not improved achievement for the students in these communities. And in some communities, the new schools created do not admit or retain the most educationally needy students." Schools in poor communities should be closed only as a last resort, and only after intensive efforts to help the school improve, and only after close collaboration with parents, the community, and teachers, and only after development of a clear plan to relocate the students to better schools.

The report also takes issue with the Obama administration's reliance on charter schools: "...we are concerned about the overrepresentation of charter schools in low-income and predominantly minority communities. There is no evidence that charter operators are systematically more effective in creating higher student outcomes nationwide...while some charter schools can and do work for some students, they are not a universal solution for systemic change for all students, especially those with the highest needs."

Nor do the civil rights groups support the idea of using test scores as a "sole or primary measure of teacher effectiveness." They believe that schools in low-income and minority communities need a stable and effective staff that is committed to schools over the long haul, and they propose that "any measure of teacher effectiveness must account for the degree of difficulty of the teaching environment so that high-quality teachers will not be deterred from working in high-need schools."

It is a strong statement, and it deserves a close reading. If you believe that education is a civil right, or that education is of paramount importance to the future of our nation, or that every child should have access to a high-quality education, it is hard to conclude that the Obama administration's education policies are wise, practical, or likely to succeed.

A few weeks after I read the civil rights document, I came across a table showing inequities in funding within states and among states. Take a look. Wealthy communities typically spend two to three times as much to educate their children as districts with poor and minority students. The civil rights groups want to change the status quo. The Wall Street titans who are now promoting privatization, competition, tough accountability, and merit pay don't think this is a topic that bears discussing. They like to talk about how education (if run like a business by a leader who has a chain saw, a bat, or a broom, and who ignores the views of parents and teachers) will close the achievement gap, but they never talk about closing the resource gap.

If the Obama administration won't listen to the groups who are most assertive in defending America's neediest children, if they listen instead to hedge-fund managers and venture philanthropists, what hope is there for a more thoughtful approach to federal policy?

Diane

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