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C.D.F. Focusing on How Schools Are Serving Children

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Washington--The Children's Defense Fund, best known for its work to gain access for disadvantaged children to health, welfare, and child-care services, is turning its attention this year to education.

The 17-year-old advocacy group, founded by the civil-rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, recently hired as its executive vice president Katherine Perry Haycock, an educator who has focused on raising achievement among poor and minority pupils.

The organization's annual meeting last week, whose theme was "Paths to Achievement," included several presentations on that topic. And cdf's yearly alternative to the President's budget proposal contains several recommendations on how to improve the schooling of poor and minority children.

The c.d.f. is also recruiting a director for its education division, a post that has often switched hands or gone unfilled in the last several years.

Launched in 1973 as the "Washington Research Project," the c.d.f. first focused on how to gain better access to education for disadvantaged children, devoting its first book, Children Out of School in America, to that topic.

But during the last eight or nine years, the organization has targeted such issues as child care, maternal and child health, youth employment, child welfare, family support, and adolescent-pregnancy prevention.

In recent months, however, the group has been "getting back very deeply and significantly into education," Ms. Edelman said.

The renewed attention marks a recognition, Ms. Haycock said, that "if we look ahead as a nation to what we need to make all citizens well educated, we have to look beyond preventing damage, to ways to promote achievement."

The c.d.f. has recognized, she added, that even for "those who arrived in kindergarten well prepared, having been through Head Start, if they were enrolled in low-quality schools, we hadn't accomplished much."

"Without providing additional educational opportunities for poor and minority children, it is less likely that the American economy can withstand increased competition from abroad," Ms. Edelman said at a news conference last week.

"In the context of the new national education goals [proposed by President Bush and the governors]," she added,"if someone is not there talking about it from children's perspective, we worry that the commitment will remain hollow."

At last week's conference, the group released its annual budget proposal, "S.O.S. America! A Children's Defense Budget," which con8tains a $4.6-billion "agenda for achievement." Its recommendations include enacting comprehensive child-care legislation, fully funding Head Start, strengthening the Chapter 1 program, boosting investments in disabled and non-English-speaking students, and improving teacher and principal training.

The group also supports a "Teacher Corps" providing scholarships for teacher candidates, a mechanism for rewarding outstanding teachers, and academies to build teachers' skills in mathematics and science and in serving disadvantaged students.

'An Effective Voice'

Beyond the rhetoric, some observers say the c.d.f.'s renewed focus on education also makes political sense.

Relations between the advocacy group and the education community have sometimes been cool, and in 1988 Ms. Edelman accused the National Education Association of trying to sabotage a fragile child-care compromise when the union opposed provisions allowing the use of funds for church-based child care. (See Education Week, Sept. 21, 1988.)

While those conficts have died down, said one education lobbyist, the c.d.f.'s "tactics around child care" cost it some credibility. "Relationships with the education community had become so strained, and these issues so fundamental, that it would have been very difficult to be involved" without a shift in policy toward the education sector, the lobbyist argued.

"Relations between the two organizations have been somewhat strained in the past, particularly over child care," Ms. Haycock acknowledged.

"The tension has not gone away," she said, but there is "a good deal of common ground, especially when we talk about the need to improve the quality of the teaching profession, staff development, and the need for decisions to be made at the building site instead of the government level."

Before joining the c.d.f., Ms. Haycock was president and executive director of the Achievement Council, a nonprofit corporation she founded with Hispanic and black leaders in California to explore ways to improve the achievement of poor and minority students.

To forge stronger links with the education community, Ms. Haycock said, the cdf has joined an eight-member coalition of education and social-welfare groups, headed by the National Association of State Boards of Education, that is developing an "urban children's agenda."

The groups are exploring, she said, "what kinds of changes in structures need to occur to ensure vulnerable children get the full range of services they need to become high achievers."

While education "for a long time didn't seem to be one of their highest priorities," the c.d.f. has "been an effective voice for poor kids," said Janice Earle, director of nasbe's Center on Educational Equity.

"If they lend themselves to the chorus that is trying to identify solutions" for children who traditionally have not fared well in school, "it's going to help us all," Ms. Earle said.

She added that educators who share the c.d.f.'s concern about "how schools are functioning for poor kids welcome their shift."

"We obviously have a shared agenda," said Michael Edwards, manager of Congressional relations for the n.e.a. "I'd be very surprised if we didn't find ourselves working hand in hand on a very wide variety of issues in the next few months and years."

At last week's conference, Jeannie Oakes, a professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles and senior social scientist with the rand Corporation, urged an end to tracking practices that segregate students and offer a less "rich" academic experience for poor and minority pupils. Samuel Betances, a professor of sociology at Northeastern Illinois University, also urged that pupils be taught to respect and retain their cultural identities, develop self-esteem, and "reject rejection."

The cdf also joined forces with the Child Welfare League of America for a Capitol Hill rally last week urging the Congress to focus on children's issues.

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