Published Online: June 19, 2007

Civil Rights Groups Press for NCLB to Focus on High Schools

Nine major civil rights organizations today called on Congress to make reforming America’s high schools and improving graduation rates for minority students the most urgent priority as it moves forward on renewing the No Child Left Behind Act.

Driven by escalating concerns that African-American, Latino, American Indian, and some Asian-American students make up the majority of the nation’s dropouts every year, the coalition unveiled its “Campaign for High School Equity,” a document that spells out clear policies it believes Congress should pursue to reverse that trend. The group partnered with the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based advocacy group that pushes for high school improvements, to devise the recommendations.

More than 1.2 million students did not graduate with their high school class in the 2006-07 school year, and the majority of them were students of color, according to the group.

“We are united on this issue,” said John Trasviña, the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the nine groups. “We all know that students of color are four times more likely to attend high schools that have become dropout factories.”

It has been rare for such a diverse group of civil rights organizations to form an alliance around a single issue, Mr. Trasviña said.

The coalition outlined dozens of specific policy priorities, including providing rigor in core subjects, especially in high-poverty communities, and requiring states to report publicly on students’ access to college-preparatory courses and course-taking patterns at the high school level by income, race, and ethnicity.

“We can’t continue to provide the least education to the most rapidly growing part of our population,” said Wade Henderson, the president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Seeking Accountability

The coalition also called for holding individual high schools accountable for the performance of students, suggesting that new requirements be added to the NCLB law that would make improving high school graduation rates for groups of students a condition for meeting accountability measures. Federal funding for secondary schools needs to be increased, the group said, and proposed that Congress establish a new fund that would help pay for improvement strategies in low-performing middle and high schools. And the long tradition of relying on local property taxes to finance schools must also be addressed, the coalition said.

“We have some real resource-equity issues,” said Michael Wotorson, the director of national education for the NAACP. “Imagine going to a school where the toilets don’t work … or the difference between a school in southeast Washington and one in Bethesda, Md.,” he said referring to an inner-city area and an affluent suburban one. “Kids get it. When they see a system that devalues them, they lose interest.”

The members of the coalition pledged today to send their recommendations to every member of Congress, and promised to organize their own constituencies to lobby for the changes as the debate over reauthorizing the law proceeds. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat who represents Baltimore, thanked the group for offering specific policies for adoption, but challenged it not to let the recommendations “collect dust.”

Bob Wise, a former governor of West Virginia and the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, said he is certain that Congress will not be able to ignore the coalition and the pressing need to address the nation’s high school dropout problem among minority students.

“I think people are finally focused on this issue,” he said. “I think people finally understand what’s at stake here if we don’t do something to address this.”

The organizations that make up the coalition include the League of United Latin American Citizens, in Los Angeles; the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund in Washington; the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Los Angeles; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Baltimore; the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Los Angeles; the National Council of La Raza in Washington; the National Indian Education Association in Washington; the National Urban League in New York City; and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center in Washington.

Vol. 26

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