Education Opinion

Keeping Equity at the Center of Reform

By Pedro A. Noguera — November 18, 2012 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,
I’m glad to hear that your travels across the country have left you feeling inspired and encouraged about possibilities for change. I am too. I just spoke to over 400 school board members (CABE Connection Association of Boards of Education) in Groton, Connecticut on Saturday and I was pleasantly surprised to see how open they were to embracing a broad reform agenda that rejects our narrow fixation on using assessment as a weapon to judge teachers and schools. I’m still not sure about what it will take to get the Obama Administration to adopt a different approach to education reform, but I think this is what we have got work at doing for the next few months as they begin plotting their direction for the next four years.

One thing I know for sure is that we have got to make a commitment to equity in education a central component of whatever we they do. It is remarkable that despite all the rhetoric about education being the civil rights issue of the 21st century, our leaders make no mention of the need for equity in educational opportunities, or conversely, the need to address the profound inequity, that characterizes so much of American education today. I suppose this may be because they are confused about what equity is. As I’ve pointed out before, several civil rights organizations have supported NCLB because they see it as a way to guarantee accountability in academic outcomes. However, what they and others have largely ignored is the profound inequity in learning opportunities caused by concentrating our most disadvantaged students in racially segregated and under-resourced schools.

In a report entitled “E Pluribus...Separation: Deepening Double Segregation for More Students”, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA has documented that a growing number of Black and Latino students attend racially isolated public schools. The report also points out that “The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration, has taken no significant action to increase school integration or to help stabilize diverse schools as racial change occurs in urban and suburban housing markets and schools.” It is important to note that this retreat from the commitment made by the Brown decision to reduce segregation “with all deliberate speed”, is occurring as our nation is becoming more racially diverse. We should be doing all we can to prepare young people to function in a more heterogeneous society. Instead, not only are our schools becoming more racially homogenous, they are also blatantly unequal.

Many people do not realize that ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) was initially part of the civil rights laws that were enacted in the 1960s to insure that economically disadvantaged children received supplemental support. Though schools serving poor children continue to receive Title I funds, the larger commitment to addressing the challenges faced by poor children came to an end with the adoption of No Child Left Behind. Ironically, NCLB is premised on equity in that it requires all children within the same state to take the same exams. We do this even though it is widely known that children are not being educated under the similar conditions. For example, though we spend far more to educate children in Scarsdale and Beverly Hills than we do to educate children in the South Bronx or Compton. Students in California and New York are required to take the same state exams regardless of where they live or whether or not the schools they attend have libraries, science labs or any of the other inputs associated with quality education. Some states like Virginia and Florida have recently adopted different targets for different sub-groups presumably to address these inequities, but they have done nothing to address the unequal learning conditions or the vast inequities in per pupil spending among schools.

As you know, the US Supreme Court is presently hearing arguments in the case of Fischer vs. the University of Texas, the latest attack on affirmative action. The case is important for a number of reasons. If the court rules the university’s policy to be a violation of the constitution it will be a major setback to efforts to maintain some degree of racial diversity in higher education. What makes the University of Texas’ policy so important is that it was introduced to counter the effects of racial segregation in Texas schools. By guaranteeing admission to students from the top ten percent of each high school’s senior class, the University of Texas was able to insure that students throughout the state had access. One could argue that rather than compensating for the effects of segregation it would be even better to promote integration in K-12 schools and insure the students throughout Texas had access to equal educational opportunities with respect to funding and school conditions. If the policy is ruled unconstitutional not only will public k - 12 schools in Texas remain segregated on the basis of race and class, but higher education will increasingly mirror this pattern.

Deb, nine states, most recently Oklahoma, have adopted bans on affirmative action through voter referendum. The federal government cannot simply allow states to resolve these issues on their own. On matters pertaining to minority rights leadership from the courts and the federal government is essential. I know the Obama administration has a lot to contend with - the so-called fiscal cliff, the brewing conflicts in Israel-Palestine and Syria, the implementation of the healthcare law, etc. but they cannot afford to ignore the challenges the nation faces on issues broadly related to equity, diversity and education. We both know that education is still the foundation of a democratic society. That is even more the case as our nation becomes more diverse and increasingly unequal.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely, Pedro

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