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The Case for the National Student Bill of Rights

Welcome again, Bryant Muldrew, as one of our most consistent and long-term guest bloggers! Bryant is helping build our Democracy and Education conversation. As readers may recall, Mr. Muldrew is a leader in the National Student Bill of Rights Movement. He is a powerful advocate for students' voices. Below, he shares with us an important story about what drove many students in Baltimore to join the campaign for a National Student Bill of Rights. - Greg

The Case for the National Student Bill of Rights
By Bryant Muldrew

baltimore-algebra-project.jpgIn 2003, students from the Baltimore Algebra Project (BAP), were told that the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS) was not going to renew BAP funding because of the BCPSS' budget issues. BAP is a highly successful nonprofit math tutoring organization Students were distraught to hear this news from the BAP's executive director Jay Gillen. A leader in the organization, Chelsea Carson, said, "It's heartbreaking to hear such news when we [tutors] are doing such great work and there is much more work to be done."

BAP's members see a clear connection between their work and the Civil Rights movement. They have identified the right to a quality education as just as essential as the right to vote in terms of participating in society as full citizens. Carson further explained that their tutoring advances math literacy, math literacy advances access to higher education, higher education helps youth approach economic stability, and economy stability allows people to participate in society as full citizens. "Only when we are economically stable can we focus on the political and social justice issues we experience in our everyday lives," Carson said. The BCPSS' plan to suspend funding of the BAP would greatly hinder their efforts to promote full citizenship.

The tutors of the BAP weren't interested in ending their work so they set out to discover why the BCPSS was having funding issues. In their research, BAP members found out that the BCPSS was underfunded by the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). In 1994, the MSDE was taken to court over this very same issue. In the case Bradford v. Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), Judge Kaplin ruled in favor of Bradford, city school parents Keith and Stephanie Bradford represented by the ACLU, declaring the MSDE was underfunding the BCPSS in comparison to other districts in the state of Maryland in 1996.

The ACLU's argument was centered on the Maryland state constitution guarantee to a "thorough and efficient" education, explaining that students were experiencing a different reality. Students faced overcrowded schools, outdated instructional materials, and greater chance of going to jail than graduating high school.

After the ruling, Baltimore City, Maryland, and the ACLU established a consent decree which was suppose to result in a gradual increase in funding to the BCPSS over the next 5 years ending in an evalution of the results. In 2000, an independent investigation of the agreement showed that Maryland was still inadequately funding the BCPSS. States created the Thornton Commission, a 27 member bi-partisan committee, was given the task of developing figuring out how to ensure adequate funding resulting in a formula for correcting the underfunding issue. The Thornton Commission's recommendation was for Maryland to increase BCPSS annual funding by $1.1 billion. Despite of the Thornton Commission's solution to the underfunding crisis, the State of Maryland never complied with Judge Kaplin's ruling.

"We couldn't believe the State would blatantly ignore court orders. We decide were going to take to the streets," said Carson. From 2003, on the student from the BAP having been actively engaged in the pursuit of the funds the BCPSS never received. Students lead strikes, hosted rallies, and tried to citizen arrest the Maryland State Department of Education's Superintendent, Nancy Grasmick.

In the spring of 2006, BAP members filed a motion in court to enact Article 6 of the Maryland State Constitution which would allow the students to take over the MSDE for non-compliance of Kaplan's previous rulings. Article 6 of the Maryland State Constitution reads: That all persons invested with the Legislative or Executive powers of Government are the Trustees of the Public, and, as such, accountable for their conduct: Wherefore, whenever the ends of Government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the People may, and of right ought, to reform the old, or establish a new Government; the doctrine of non-resistance against arbitrary power and oppression is absurd, slavish and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.

They planned to sit themselves on the one the MSDE and grant the BCPSS full funding because they felt that they had exhausted all other means of redress thus believing they were within their legal rights.

"In 2006, we even took the MSDE back to court. We reopened the case with the same judge. It was crazy. You'd have to see something like that for yourself. Baltimore City Government lawyers actually testified against us saying we didn't need the funding for the BCPSS," Carson explained. Judge Kaplan requested more information from the city and state governments proving their claims, but it was never provided. BAP members felt there was not real power within the state to the underfunding crisis.

At this point in the BAP, students became more vested in larger social reform. As a result, students were invited to participate in social justice conferences like the United States Social Forum and the Free Minds, Free People Conference. At these conferences, BAP students met students from NY, MA, CA, IL, MN, UT, and more. "We learned that Baltimore City students weren't the only students getting screwed by their states," said Carson. The students quickly learned that there was a need for power to force the states to provide a quality education to its youth.

At the Free Minds, Free People Conference in Houston, students from Chicago introduced the concept of a National Student Bill of Rights (NSBR). Students across the country believe that there should be federal protection of a quality education so that states cannot ignore direct court orders without government intervention.

Since 2009, the BAP has centered all its youth advocacy work on NSBR asserting that students should have access to a quality education and it should be a constitutional right.

Carson said, "It's a shame we have to force states to treat students fairly, but we have to be educated."

How do YOU think we can build power around the right to a quality education?

  • Chelsea Carson

  • http://www.aclu-md.org/uploaded_files/0000/0173/bradford_summary.pdf

  • http://www.aclu.org/racial-justice_womens-rights/aclu-maryland-applauds-education-funding-increase-calls-it-important-st

  • http://www.schoolfunding.info/resource_center/MDbrief.php3

  • http://www.baltimorealgebraproject.org/#!timeline

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