Summary of July 26 Statement by 7 Civil Rights Organizations

Summary of July 26 Statement by 7 Civil Rights Organizations

Commentary by Jan Resseger, Minister for Public Education and Witness


On Monday, July 26, 2010, seven prominent civil rights organizations— the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., the National Council for Educating Black Children, the National Urban League, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, and the Schott Foundation for Public Education—released a very powerful statement on public education that critiques the Administration’s policies in federal stimulus grant competitions and plans for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act:  “The comments that follow offer critiques of federal efforts that would: distribute resources by competition in the midst of a severe recession; advance experimental proposals dwarfed by the scope of the challenges in low-income communities; and promote ineffective approaches for turning around low-performing schools and education systems.”


My brief summary in this e-mail highlights specifically those concerns that converge with the critique in a recent pastoral letter, An Alternative Vision for Public Education, adopted by the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches on May 18.  I urge you, however, to read carefully the entire civil rights statement.  It speaks to additional important concerns that were not addressed in the Pastoral Letter, including very damaging and punitive school discipline programs that push children into the school-prison pipeline; the alarming high school dropout rate; the continuing need for our nation to combat racial segregation and concentration of poverty; the urgent need to promote and support universal, high-quality early childhood education; and the need to support education professionals with ongoing training.  It emphatically supports the Obama Administration’s plan to strengthen and enforce federal civil rights safeguards.


According to the statement, the primary goal of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act must be the expansion of educational opportunity. “We advance proposals to leverage federal resources available to all states in order to create the preconditions to achieve equitable opportunities for all. As a part of extending an opportunity to learn as a civil right, we call for: “universal” early education for all students in all states; policies that will provide access to highly effective teachers for all students, including incentives to recruit and retain well-prepared, highly effective teachers in high–need, low-income, and rural areas; and community schools that offer wraparound services and strong, engaging instruction with adequate supports.”


The statement strongly opposes the Administration’s proposal to shift Title I funding into a competitive grant program, noting that by selecting Tennessee and Delaware as the two winners of the first round, the Race to the Top Fund, the Administration has driven federal funds in that program only to  2.5% of the students in the United States eligible for free and reduced lunch, 3% of the nation’s Black students, and less than 1% of Latino, Native American, and Hmong students.  The statement instead proposes that federal policy shift “from competitive grant programs to conditional incentive grants that can be made available to all states, provided they adopt systemic, proven strategies for providing all students with an opportunity to learn… With the creation of the ESEA as a part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, the federal government took the first steps toward requiring an equitable distribution of funding among states. Shifting the emphasis from competitive grants to conditional incentives can preserve those gains.”


Rejecting the notion that teacher evaluation should depend on the scores students earn on standardized tests, the statement declares:  “Rather, effectiveness should be defined by teachers’ experience, knowledge, skills, and classroom performance, as well as their individual contributions to student learning and their joint efforts to improve learning within the school. 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.”


Public schools should serve all children, not merely privileged children or groups of children whose parents are able to be active choosers.  “As a community of civil rights organizations, our objective is not to support prescriptions that only have the capacity to change a few schools for a few students. We want a blueprint for a federal commitment to education reform that embraces the entire nation and all of its people.” “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… Rather than addressing inequitable access to research-proven methodologies like high quality early childhood education and a stable supply of experienced, highly effective teachers, recent education reform proposals have favored “stop gap” quick fixes that may look new on the surface but offer no real long-term strategy for effective systemic change. The absence of these “stop gap” programs in affluent communities speaks to the marginal nature of this approach. We therefore urge an end to the federal push to encourage states to adopt federally prescribed methodologies that have little or no evidentiary support – for primary implementation only in low-income and high-minority communities.”


Today’s statement opposes overreliance on charter schools as a primary school reform policy.  “We have reservations about the extensive reliance on charter schools in the Blueprint’s turnaround strategies. While charters can serve as laboratories for innovation, 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… Charters enroll 54% fewer English Language Learner (ELL) students, 43% fewer special education students, and 37% fewer free and reduced price lunch students than high minority public school districts. Thus, 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. To the extent that the federal government continues to encourage states to expand the number of charters and reconstitute existing schools as charters, it is even more critical to ensure that every state has a rigorous accountability system to ensure that all charters are operating at a high level. There must also be safeguards to ensure that charter schools do not promote education-driven gentrification through the disproportionate exclusion of students with the greatest needs. And the federal government must work with states and districts to ensure that charters fulfill the same civil rights obligations that apply to all public schools.”


Likewise, the statement opposes other turnaround strategies being proposed by the Administration.  “Because public schools are critical community institutions especially in urban and rural areas, they should be closed only as a measure of last resort… While we do not rule out school closure as an option for turning around a persistently low-performing school, we fear that the administration’s Blueprint places too much emphasis on school closure, as well as the reconstitution of school staff, in its proposed turnaround models… Research has found that widespread use of these strategies has increased disruption but has 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… If solving the educational challenges in these communities was as simple as “fire and rehire” or “close and restart,” the problem would have been solved many years ago, as both teacher and school leader departures and school closures already occur at a much higher rate in low-income and high-minority communities. Simply requiring dramatic changes to governance and staffing will not address those needs. Low-performing schools will not improve unless we also change the resources, conditions, and approaches to teaching and learning within the schools or their replacements. Moreover, as communities in New York and Kansas City have indicated through campaigns protesting the closure of their schools, schools are more than buildings; they are social institutions whose closure could threaten the organized provision of necessary health and social services to their communities. For these reasons, we urge… that no turnaround model should be implemented without ensuring a process for input from, and collaboration with, parents, the community, and teachers.”