A Civil Right

A Civil Right

"Therefore, be it resolved that the Twenty-third General Synod of the United Church of Christ: Calls upon the United Church of Christ in all its settings to proclaim public school support and advocacy for the same as one of the foremost civil rights issues in the twenty-first century."  —2001, General Synod XXIII Resolution, "Access to Excellent Public Schools: A Child's Civil Right in the 21st Century"

Public school challenges in the first decade of the twenty-first century exist at the nexus of race, poverty, and segregation.  Over fifty years after the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, our courts and legislative bodies have retreated from policies that bring together children from different racial and ethnic groups. And while most school reform today sets "separate but equal" as its goal, we are far from providing equality of resources and services for children segregated by poverty and race.

The United Church of Christ's heritage of commitment to opportunity in public schools challenges members of the 21st century UCC to help our nation find a way to increase access to excellent public schools for every child.  We are called to find a way to walk in the tradition of our forebears who helped develop the concept of common schools and our abolitionist forebears in the nineteenth century American Missionary Association, who helped abolish slavery and founded educational institutions as the path for the development of all citizens.  Only if we make it possible will public schools continue to be places where our children come together, learn from each other, and experience unity within diversity.   How will we ensure access for all, quality for all, and opportunity for all?

Competitive Programs Replace Civil Rights Focus in Federal Policy

Programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants and the waivers from the most onerous consequences of No Child Left Behind are now the policy of the U.S. Department of Education. To qualify for these competitive funding programs, states have to agree to adopt additional standards-based reforms prescribed by the U.S. Department of Education. 

By definition, competitions create winners and losers. Why does this matter? Consider the impact on the largest federal funding stream for public education, Title I.  Title I was created in 1965 in the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act to provide federal aid for schools serving children in poverty. Although the Title I formula program is small relative to state and local funding, it is the federal government’s primary tool for equalizing educational opportunity as a civil right for every child. No Child Left Behind has never fully funded the Title I formula, but today the federal government has frozen funding for the Title I formula and makes Title I funds competitively available for states and school districts that win Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants. The trend toward competitive grants has increased the role of grant writers and consultants, but in many places children who qualify for federally funded services because they are poor have lost their services when their state did not win a Race to the Top or other federal competitive grant.

In a speech on public education, here is what the Rev. Jesse Jackson said about today's policy that frames education as a race: “There are those who would make the case for a Race to the Top for those who can run. Instead 'lift from the bottom' is the moral imperative because it includes everybody. We should be fighting for a common foundation beneath which no child falls.”

Read about the transformation of Title I into a competition in a January 7, 2013, Witness for Justice column: A System Where Every Poor Child Is a Winner

News About Federal Competitive Programs

  • UCC web page: Charter Schools and Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) Are a Form of Privatization.
  • May 6, 2013: New York City school reform under Mayor Bloomberg has defined corporatized, test-and-punish school policy. Diane Ravitch and Leonie Haimson pubished a scathing critique in The Nation, The Education of Michael Bloomberg.
  • April 28, 2013: Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, Obama's Big Second-Term Education Problem.
  • February 19, 2013: A Congressionally appointed Equity and Excellence Commission that has been meeting for two years released its report, For Each and Every Child.  Acknowledging that test-based accountability has not sufficiently improved public schools in America’s poorest communities, members of the Commission declare that our society must address what is a deplorable 22 percent child poverty rate, highest in the industrialized world.  The report emphasizes the responsibility of governments at all levels—federal, state, and local—to ensure that children in America’s poorest communities are well served by quality, well-funded, well-staffed public schools. The UCC Justice & Witness Ministries presented testimony to the Commission because unequal access to education is among our nation’s deepest injustices.
  • February 15, 2013: Here is a ground breaking expose from Reuters on use of selection screens in a number of charter schools in locations across the United States. While charter schools must hold lotteries if there are more applicants than spaces, many of these schools are actually adding entry requirements to determine which children can enter the lottery. A must read for those concerned that public school reform today fails to serve the most vulnerable children.
  • February 2013: Diane Ravitch writes for the NY Review of Books on the problems with Race to the Top and other federal education policies that demand teachers be judged by students' standardized test scores---Holding Education Hostage.
  • Check out this report from New York's Alliance for Quality Education, New York State Competitive Grants: Creating a System of Education Winners and Losers.

Affirmative Action

The UCC's General Synods have strongly supported affirmative action, an institution that will be decided in June as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the Fisher case.

June 2013: This writer for the NY Times reminds us that whatever happens in the court, there are many steps universities can take to expand opportunity for adolescents who have been left behind.  The record among public universities from state to state is alarmingly uneven.  The writer compares California and Texas, states that have expanded opportunity for many, to Michigan, where the number of students carrying Pell Grants remains relatively small.  Read Universities Show Uneven Efforts in Enrolling Poor.

Racial and Economic Segregation in American Public Schools

December 2012: Two articles in The Atlantic explore continuing racial segregation in our nation's public schools:  Was 'Brown v. Board' A Failure? and Private Academies Keep Students Separate and Unequal 40 Years Later.

July 20, 2008... The New York Times Magazine in "The Next Kind of Integration," reports on Louisville's developing school integration plan one year after the U.S. Supreme Court Case that rejected voluntary racial integration plans in Louisville, KY and Seattle, WA. 

Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society: A 21st Century Challenge, the January 2009 report from the Civil Rights Project charges: "Fifty-five years after the Brown decision, blacks and Latinos in American schools are moresegregated than they have been in more than four decades. The Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in the Seattle and Louisville voluntary desegregation cases has not only taken away some important tools used by districts to combat this rising isolation, but this decision is also certain to intensify these trends. Segregation is fast spreading into large sectors of suburbia and there is little or no assistance for communities wishing to resist the pressures of resegregation and ghetto creation in order to build successfully integrated schools and neighborhoods. Desegregation plans that were successful for decades are being shut down by orders from conservative courts, federal civil rights officials have pressured communities to abandon their voluntary desegregation efforts, and magnet schools are losing their focus on desegregation...  Although there are serious interracial conflicts in schools and neighborhoods shared by two or more disadvantaged minorities, very little research or assistance has been provided to solve those urgent problems. The percentage of poor children in American schools has been rising substantially and black and Latino students, even those whose families are middle class, are largely attending schools with very high fractions of low-income children who face many problems in their homes and communities. As immigration continues to transform many sectors of American society this country is falling far behind in building faculties that reflect the diversity of American students--44% of whom are now nonwhite--and failing to prepare teachers who can communicate effectively with the 20 percent of homes where another language is spoken as immigration continues to transform many sectors of American society. Millions of nonwhite students are locked into “dropout factory” high schools, where huge percentages do not graduate...."   

June 28, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court turned away from desegregation of public schools in a decision called Parents Involved

On June 28, 2007, in a split 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found unconstitutional two programs that used race as one of a number of factors for voluntary school desegregation. The two cases folded into one for purposes of the decision, called Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, involved programs in Louisville, Kentucky and in Seattle, Washington.   

The United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries was party to an amicus brief in this case on behalf of the Jefferson County, Kentucky and Seattle, Washington school districts,

What will this ruling mean in terms of steps school districts can continue to take to promote diversity?  To an important degree the majority decision turns away from the precedent in Brown v. Board of Education, although it does not ban entirely all programs to promote inclusion and diversity.  Here are resources to help you explore the implications of the overall decision and the specific points of view in the majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions.

Recent and important books that explore issues of school integration, desegregation, diversity, and why separate so often means "unequal"...

The Children in  Room E4 (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007).  Susan Eaton weaves together the history of public education civil right law since Brown v. Board of Education with the stories of Connecticut’s on-going nineteen year Sheff v. O’Neill case; third grade class star, Jeremy Otero; 28 year veteran teacher and Hartford Teacher of the Year, Lois Luddy; and national Blue Ribbon Award winning Simpson-Waverly Elementary School.  Eaton also tells the story of UCC activist Elizabeth Horton Sheff, mother of the named plaintiff in the Sheff Case, and also chair of the United Church of Christ’s Public Education Task Force. 

The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (New York: Crown Publishers, 2005). Jonathan Kozol  speaks to the issues in the 2007 Supreme Court decision.  Better than almost any other school critic, Kozol explicates the relation of education to power by contrasting the kind of education given generously to children of privilege with schooling that is made available to poor children in segregated city schools.

Key UCC resources on civil rights concerns in public schools...

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