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Does Dressing Up Education Reform as a Civil Right Make a Difference?

For the next few weeks, Rick will be out and about discussing his new edited volume, Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned. While he's away, several of the contributors have agreed to stop by and offer their reflections on what we've learned from the Bush-Obama era. This week, you'll hear from Josh Dunn, a professor of political science at the University of Colorado—Colorado Springs. He'll be discussing the implications of the Bush-Obama emphasis on school reform as a civil rights issue.

First, many thanks to Rick for letting me crash at his place for the week. Before I leave, I'll put the furniture back where you had it. Also, thanks to Rick and Mike McShane for the opportunity to contribute to Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned.

My assignment for this volume was to look at how the Bush and Obama administrations framed many of their reforms as "civil rights" initiatives and see whether doing so improved policy outcomes. Spoiler alert! It didn't. This week, I will focus on what I think are the primary lessons we can learn from these efforts.

The first lesson is that labeling a policy reform as a "civil right" does not overcome the difficulties of managing and reforming "coping" organizations like schools. Baptizing a policy as a "civil right" might improve its political prospects, but it's not a magic incantation guaranteeing policy success. In fact, it might make success more difficult.

George W. Bush, of course, signaled that he was going to sell his education agenda as an extension of civil rights when he attacked "the soft bigotry of low expectations" and called the lower test scores of Latino and African-American students "discrimination." Politically, this had the advantage of creating a bipartisan coalition for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in Congress. Civil rights groups rallied around NCLB largely because it required the disaggregation of student-achievement data that made federal funding contingent on states' breaking student performance out by race and other categories. As well, if students were in a school that failed to make adequate yearly progress for two years, they could transfer. Data plus choice would drive improvement. When NCLB proved to be unworkable, the Education Department (ED) used its waiver provisions to extract even more reforms out of states seeking relief. As Mike explained last week, those reforms largely didn't work either.

During the Obama administration, civil rights activity only accelerated. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a raft of "Dear Colleague Letters" (DCLs) on school discipline, school finance, and transgender students. All these DCLs faced legal and practical problems. Legally, they rested on at best shaky foundations. But even if one overlooked OCR's dubious legal reasoning, they faced practical problems of implementation. That was particularly true of the school discipline DCL that said that if students in one racial group are punished more than their percentage of the student population, a district or school could be subject to a federal investigation.

Clearly, the underlying goal was to improve conditions for minority students. Suspensions did decrease, but that didn't mean that minority students were better off. Many school districts responded to the DCL by relaxing their discipline policies. But teachers across the country, particularly in large urban systems serving largely minority populations, reported that it made their schools less safe. Schools simply started tolerating more disruptive behavior. But doing that harmed minority students the most since they had their education disrupted by troublemakers. John Kinsler has shown that, in turn, increases the racial achievement gap.

The best explanation for why this civil rights focus led us astray, I think, can be found in the work of the late political scientist, James Q. Wilson. In his justifiably famous book Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It, he defined "coping" organizations as ones where managers have difficulty monitoring employees or measuring outcomes. Basically, you don't know what your employees are doing and whether they've done what they're supposed to do. Schools and the police are the quintessential examples.

Many, if not most, education reforms, including those of the Bush and Obama administrations, are attempts to overcome the problems of managing a coping organization. Framing a policy as a civil rights initiative lends it a moral urgency that not only helps generate political support but also should help cut through the managerial fog. Rights, after all, are trump cards. They demand protection regardless of the cost. The focus on accountability was supposed to make it easier to measure outcomes, and demanding statistically equal rates of punishment was a proxy for not being able to observe school officials enforcing school discipline policies. But as we have seen, it's hard to argue that either of those had their intended outcome.

As well, dressing up policy preferences in civil rights drag makes it difficult to cut your losses if it turns out that your reforms aren't working. Rights and remedies are tightly linked. If a remedy has been declared essential to protect a right, the remedy becomes nearly as sacrosanct as the right. This connection helps explain ED's intransigence when states asked for relief from NCLB's impossible requirements. It also suggests that we should be cautious about labeling reforms as civil rights initiatives in the first place.

Josh Dunn

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