Education Opinion

John Brittain: Lawyers’ Committee Honcho On The HotSeat

By Alexander Russo — February 13, 2007 6 min read
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As Chief Counsel and Senior Deputy to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, John Brittain is in a tremendously interesting and influential position when it comes to school reform, which many describe as the civil rights issue of our era.

On the HotSeat, Brittain praises NCLB (for its focus on the achievement gap), but admits that it took time for civil rights groups “to wrap our arms around” NCLB provisions like AYP. He says that the feds can meddle in teacher assignment issues (if warranted) and that states shouldn’t cap charters (but should monitor their performance).

He reminds us that integration is still an important issue (and that racial integration is still preferable to economic integration despite the legal challenges that the former currently faces). Last but not least, he explains the difference between the Lawyers’ Committee and the Citizen’s Commission (one’s a committee, the other’s a commission) and describes the benefits of wearing a bow-tie (no food stains).

Click below to read all about it.Which of the presidential candidates out there seems to have the most interesting ideas about school improvement, and what are they?

JB: As much as I would love to comment on the presidential candidates’ educational policies, our staff found that none of them have fully developed their policy positions, at least on education. However, education is a priority for Americans, so I anticipate that school improvement will be front and center in the upcoming presidential election cycle.

Some of the most controversial elements of the President’s proposed NCLB reauthorization are provisions that would require states and districts to modify state charter caps and union teacher transfer agreements for low-performing schools. Is such a proposal legal, and is it advisable?

JB: The federal government may generally condition the receipt of federal funds such as a mandatory state seat belt law as a prerequisite to receive federal highway dollars. If teacher transfer agreements result in less experienced teachers in low-performing schools, more experienced teachers should be given incentives to teach there by the carrot or the stick of the law. I don’t think states should impose arbitrary caps on the number charter schools. Rather both the federal and state governments should adequately fund charter schools and closely monitor their performance.

What’s your organization’s position on NCLB – mend it, end it, fund it, or something else?

JB: The Lawyers’ Committee has long supported the mission of Title I, one of President Johnson’s Great Society programs, to provide supplemental federal assistance to high-poverty schools Everyone believes NCLB should be fully funded. We don’t want to end it. Therefore, I predict that we will recommend ways to mend it. If the recent robust debate on Edspresso.com, “Dianne Piché (Civil Rights Commission) vs. Mike Petrilli (Fordham Foundation) vs. Joel Packer (NEA) on No Child Left Behind (Feb. 5-9, 2007): “Is it working? What needs to change?” – is any indication of the options, the Lawyers’ Committee faces some tough decision making.

What, if anything, has been the most positive influence of NCLB over the past five years, and what has been the worst?

JB: I think the most positive influence of NCLB is to highlight the achievement gap between the poor and non-poor, and those racial/ethnic minorities and non-minorities as the most important education equality issue of the 21st century. The achievement gap today is what Jim Crow segregation was in the Twentieth Century.

Why have the civil rights groups in general been so quiet on education issues during this most recent span of time?

JB: I disagree with the assumption that civil rights groups have been quiet on issues of education. If you are referring to school desegregation and integration, every major civil rights organization has urged the United States Supreme Court to uphold the voluntary race conscious school assignment plans in the Seattle and Jefferson County, Kentucky cases to support the educational and cultural values of diversity in education. Perhaps civil rights organizations have been more responsive to oppose efforts to end school integration than to aggressively advocate for integration.

Why have some groups – the Citizen’s Commission, the EdTrust – been active when others have been less so?

JB: I assume you mean active or inactive in regards to NCLB. I agree that civil rights groups have been slow to react to NCLB. It took time to wrap our arms around AYP (annual yearly progress), teacher quality, growth models and other sophisticated and often disputed educational methods. However, everyone is gearing up for the NCLB reauthorization legislative process.

For those of us who are easily confused, what’s the difference between the Lawyers’ Committee and the Citizen’s Commission?

JB: The Lawyers’ Committee was formed in 1963 by former President John F. Kennedy, who summoned 250 of the most influential attorneys throughout the nation to provide pro bono legal assistance in civil rights cases. Today, the Lawyers’ Committee’s mission seeks racial and ethnic equality in five core civil rights areas of voting, education, housing, and employment along with community development and environmental justice.

I read that the Lawyers’ Committee was involved in the subgroup issue – what did you do and what was the result?

JB: We collaborated with the Citizen’s Commission to expose what Dianne Piché, their Executive Director, describes as the educational authorities who “gamed the system” by not reporting the progress of certain subgroups, such as racial and ethnic minorities and children with disabilities. The United States Department of Education is studying the issue, and promises to make a recommendation to fix the loop hole.

What’s your view of the NAACP’s involvement in the Connecticut NCLB lawsuit?

JB: We are one of the co-counsel for the Connecticut State Conference of the NAACP. The United States District Court granted the NAACP the right to intervene in Connecticut v. Spellings. Connecticut claims that the NCLB Act amounts to an unfunded mandate; therefore it should not have to comply with creating tests in the odd grade years. However, the NAACP believes the suit is harmful for the minority and poor children in Connecticut, and a ruling for the State would create a dangerous precedent for enforcement of civil rights statutes.

Some folks are promoting economic integration over racial integration, while others are urging an abandonment of integration over all. What’s your view of how things should be, and how do we get there?

JB: The debate between integration and non-integration as the best means to insure equality of education for minority children has been going on since Brown v. Board of Education. However, as the Supreme Court tightens the standard of proof for school integration, more people, including minority group beneficiaries of school integration, have turned to non-integration means, such as school improvement of segregated schools (an oxymoron). And affirmative action using low economic status to promote diversity in education has escaped legal challenge so far. Yet, the Lawyers’ Committee remains committed to educational advantages of an integrated education for a child of color.

What are the main things that people (the public, the press, lawmakers) still don’t understand about NCLB and urban education systems?

JB: From a civil rights perspective, I think the best parts of NCLB are the high expectations with the goal of closing the achievement gap,the focus on teacher quality in the classroom, the publication of student achievement information by district and subgroups, and the transfer provision for students who attend non-performing schools. Yet, testing, classifications, and enforcement (not sanctions) seem to garner most of the hostile reaction from the public.

Name three other men that you admire who also prefer the bow tie, and describe in brief its pleasures and perils.

JB:I admire George Will, former Senators Paul Simon and Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens for almost always wearing bow ties. I enjoy the pleasure of a unique fashion style, and avoiding food on my tie. For the perils, people think you are a little strange and eccentric.

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