The Battle Over Education and Civil Rights

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The Battle Over Education and Civil Rights

Even many progressive Democrats have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to fending off the assault on public education and recognizing what truly transformative schools and teaching policies look like. (Image: The Progressive)

“This is a historic moment to end 13 years of legislative malpractice” NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia says of the federal K12 education law that Congress is currently hashing out.

Congress has failed to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act ever since George Bush rewrote the law and renamed it No Child Left Behind in 2002.

The original Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, was part of a civil-rights-era drive to rectify glaring inequality.

It dealt with disproportionate funding within and among the states. It created grants to help low-income students, built libraries and provided text books to schools in poor areas.

All of that changed with No Child Left Behind.

In the George W. Bush era, U.S. education policy switched from trying to do something about the corrosive effects of poverty to a focus on accountability and standards. Federal funding came with strings attached. Schools serving poor kids were ordered to improve test scores or face sanctions.

The Obama Administration’s Race to the Top initiative continued the basic thrust of No Child Left Behind, offering states flexibility on specific requirements of Federal law if they tied teacher performance evaluations to test scores and pushed other rigorous test-score-improvement plans.

But the backlash against what critics call the “test and punish” approach has snowballed into a major movement over the last two years. 

The biggest, hottest debate about the federal education act reauthorization is about whether “test and punish” is a civil-rights cause.

On the one hand, civil rights activists and some of the biggest civil rights groups are suspicious of local school authorities in historically separate and unequal communities and see standardized testing as a legitimate federal effort to make sure poor kids and kids of color are learning to read and do math.

On the other hand, teachers and civil rights activists including Jesse Hagopian, who has united the local NAACP, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the opt-out movement to reject over-testing in Seattle, sees poor, minority kids getting shafted by a stripped down, test-focused education regime.

Progressive legislators who don’t want to side with the Obama-bashing, Common-Core-conspiracist Tea Party Republicans have been caught behind the curve on the popular movement against test-and-punish.

Teacher Steven Singer proclaimed in a recent blog post, “The Democrats May Have Just Aligned Themselves with Test and Punish—We Are Doomed.”

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, along with almost every other Democrat in the U.S. Senate, supported an amendment to the federal education law that would have kept stringent testing, firing staff who don’t raise scores, and helping students dump schools that fail to measure up.

When Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, introduced the amendment, he said it was because the federal education act “has to be a civil rights law.” 

Local civil rights activists in many cities, from New York to New Orleans, Chicago to Seattle, disagree. They have spent the last year protesting the “test and punish” model and the closing of neighborhood schools that are “underperforming” (invariably those that serve low-income kids), demanding more resources and less punishment.

Republicans succeeded in killing the amendment.

Progressive Democrats have some catching up to do.

Ultimately, some test-and-punish critics’ concerns may be addressed in the new federal law.

Eskelsen Garcia points to measures that will help kids who have been missing out on music, sports, and recess in order to maximize their time preparing for standardized tests.

NEA’s government relations director Mary Kusler says the Senate version of the new is better than No Child Left Behind.

 “Overall, this is an improvement over current law,” Kustler says. It helps by “ensuring the federal role is focuses on children in need,” recognizing that “under-resourced kids deserve more than just math and reading.”

But the version of the law Congress is currently hashing out doesn’t go far enough for most progressive education activists:

  • It increases funding for charter schools, despite massive waste, fraud and abuse
  • It continues testing.
  • It does nothing about child hunger, access to books, and to health care—the main drivers of unequal opportunity for poor children.
  • Testing in the new law is less toxic, because it rolls back federal requirements and leaves tests up to the states. That’s OK if you live in a reasonable state. But in Tea Party territories like Wisconsin, it can mean locking in a brutal regime of standardized tests tied to firing teachers, closing schools, and handing them over to private operators.

Part of the problem with using standardized tests to police whether poor kids are well served at school is that the tests themselves are narrow and not as revealing as their proponents would like to believe.

But more than that, the whole test-and-punish model marks a cultural shift away from the War on Poverty.

The idea that poverty is an attitude problem that can be fixed with toughness and rigor, that anti-poverty programs paid for by the government are wasteful, and that private business does everything, including education, better, has become deeply embedded in our culture since ESEA went into effect 50 years ago.

That is changing now, thanks to leadership from people like Jesse Hagopian.

It’s time for the progressives in Washington to catch up.

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is editor of The Progressive magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @rconniff

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