Thursday, August 31, 2017

New School Funding Law to Move Illinois from Terrible to Respectable?

Illinois has long been one of the worst offenders in terms of school funding fairness.  It is one of the wealthier states in the nation, yet the effort it exerts to fund education has been among the worst.  School funding fairness reports have regularly ranked its effort as a D or low C in comparison to other states.  The most troubling feature of Illinois school funding, however, has been how unfairly it distributes the meager school funds that it actually generates.  

In the 2010 funding fairness  report, Illinois ranked 48th in the nation in terms of funding levels in districts serving moderate numbers of low-income students compared to those with almost no low-income students.  Districts serving moderate numbers of low-income students received 22% less funding per student than districts with few to no low-income students. The 2017 report showed the same problem.  Illinois ranked 47th on this metric and the funding gap had grown to 23%.

The blame for this gap has rested squarely at the feet of the state legislature, which has chosen to place extraordinarily high burdens on local school districts to fund education themselves.  With little state support, this districts are left to sink or swim on their own.  Too many tread water or simply sink.

The irony is that Illinois' state constitution includes one of the strong education guarantees in the nation.  Article X of the state constitution provides:

A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.

The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and service.

I will refrain from an exegesis of this clause and its history, but would emphasis that it has two explicit phrases that are missing from most other state constitutions: "fundamental" and "high quality."  The crucial question under state and federal constitutional law has been whether education is a fundamental right.  Illinois states it as a fundamental goal, which adds a distinction, but the all-important word fundamental is there.

The other crucial question in state courts has been whether the state constitution can be interpreted as some sort of quality mandate and, if so, what is that mandate.  Illinois' constitutional language leaves no doubt.  The word "shall" indicates a mandate and "high quality" directly answers the other question.

Nonetheless, the Illinois courts have done nothing to hold the state accountable for complying with these constitutional mandates.  Unlike the majority of other state court systems, Illinois courts have said school funding raises a political question and, thus, is left to the discretion of the legislature.  Aggrieved citizens' only recourse, said the Illinois Supreme Court, is the ballot box.  Well, it has taken decades, but the politics in Illinois have finally shifted.

On Tuesday, the state Senate passed a new school funding formula.  The bill amended and strengthened the house version and the governor has said he will sign it.  According to reports, it will drive far more funds toward needy districts and place less reliance on local property tax.  This new formula is said to be "evidence based," meaning that it responds to student and district need rather than geographic politics.

It sounds like the state is about to take a major step forward, but I will wait for someone like Bruce Baker to run the numbers and confirm it.  I also cannot help but note that the bill included new money for tax credits for private school, otherwise know as neo-vouchers.  I did not follow the politics on this, but imagine the deal was held hostage by an ideological stance on vouchers.

August 31, 2017 in School Funding | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Charlottesville: A step in our long arc toward justice

Five year ago, as part of a civil rights symposium, I reflected on the long history of educational opportunities and rights in the United States.  The result was an article titled, Education's Elusive Future, Storied Past, and the Fundamental Inequities Between.  I attempted to 

situat[e] current educational realities and reforms within a broader historical context and argue[d] we are at the end of a period of retrenchment and currently in a transitional phase that could usher in a new era of opportunity expansion. However, none of the current reform proposals are capable of seizing this opportunity. Each of the current reforms suffers from one of two flaws: a refusal to take seriously the lessons of past reform efforts or an insistence that we do more of the same. The task of educational reform is, first, to appreciate that, based on historical cycles, the opportunity for significant change is possible in the near future and, second, to redouble efforts to develop theoretical frameworks that can animate a new era.

In retrospect, I see both merits and flaws in those thoughts.  The flaw was that the failure to fully appreciate how retrenchment would continue to run strong in education.  I was simply too optimistic.  On the the other hand, by situating the retrenchment in the broader context, I could characterize it as temporary and likely to be overwhelmed by deeper historical forces.  While that retrenchment continues in many respects, recent polls showing families increasingly skeptical of market based reforms and more committed to traditional public education suggest that we might be tipping back toward progress.  

The primary point of the article, however, was to emphasize the danger in focusing on current events and circumstances in isolation.  While the long view of events necessarily entails speculation, the short view is more susceptible to misinterpretation.  Below is another essay I recently published that applies that same frame of analysis to the recent events in Charlottesville and briefly draws on education's history:


Charlottesville: A step in our long arc toward justice

Derek W. Black, University of South Carolina

The number and exuberance of white nationalists who descended on Charlottesville sent emotional tremors through the nation. Some worried that this was the beginning of an expanding movement that would hearken us back to darker times.

And many felt that President Donald Trump’s comments only made matters worse. The president’s implied moral equivalency between racist elements and counterprotesters emboldened the former: David Duke, a white nationalist leader and former KKK grand wizard, thanked the president for his “honesty” and willingness to “condemn the leftist terrorists.”

As a civil rights scholar, however, this naked display of racism does not dampen my expectations for racial justice. We have been here before.

In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. marched with thousands of people for African-American voting rights and was met by violent opposition. The hostility caused some to doubt whether justice was still at hand, but King believed it was a setback that would be overcome. Quoting the wisdom of a 19th-century Unitarian minister, King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The public outcry over Charlottesville, along with my own reading of the long history of civil rights, only confirms King’s truth. For better or worse, Charlottesville is part of our nation’s long moral reckoning – one that reveals we’re still bending toward justice.

A makeshift memorial to Heather Heyer, who died when a car rammed into a group of counterprotesters in Charlottesville. AP Photo/Steve Helber


Our greatest racial reckoning began in the Civil War, but it didn’t end there. The three decades that followed the war were, in their own ways, just as radical.

Between 1863 and 1877, the United States literally, politically and ideologically rebuilt itself. In the immediate aftermath of the war, our nation amended its constitution three times: abolishing slavery, granting African-Americans citizenship and guaranteeing equality, fairness and voting rights for all. In 1867, Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, which required southern states to rewrite their state constitutions in order to be part of the new conceptualized Union.

Southern states conceded, ushering in changes that would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier. In South Carolina, for instance, African-Americans were actually a majority of the delegates at the state’s 1868 constitutional convention. And in 1870, Jonathan Jasper Wright became the first African-American to serve as a state supreme court justice.

South Carolina was no outlier. African-American political participation across the South increased dramatically, leading to progressive public policies in education, voting and civil rights. Within just a few short years, more African-Americans served in Congress than at any other period for the next hundred years.


Despite the incredible progress that was made, Reconstruction’s changes were understandably fragile, maintained only by the presence of Union soldiers. When they left the South in 1877, a new era began: what southerners called “Redemption.”

Through violence, corruption and legal manipulation, southern whites would disenfranchise African-Americans and regain political control. They would then pass an ever-expanding list of Jim Crow laws designed to limit other basic rights. While no longer slaves, African-Americans were, in effect, reduced to second-class citizens.

Yet, Redemption could not entirely rewind the nation to a pre-Civil War state. African-Americans continued to serve as elected officials (though in smaller numbers) and made steady gains in education, business and property.

Though southern states resisted integration, school enrollment for African-Americans increased steadily following Reconstruction. AP Photo

African-American business and land ownership continued to increase, hitting all-time highs in the early 1900s. Access to education was even more impressive. The most dramatic jump in the African-American school enrollment occurred during Reconstruction, but the enrollment gap between whites and blacks continued to close for the next century. By the time Brown v. Board of Education was decided, fewer than 10 percentage points separated the number of black and white kids enrolled in school.

In short, what Reconstruction built took Redemption decades to tear down. And even then, much of Reconstruction could never be destroyed completely.

Obama, Trump and Charlottesville

Fast forward a century. The Civil Rights movement has achieved numerous successes and the nation has elected its first black president – not once, but twice.

For the optimistic (or perhaps naive), this moment symbolized an end to the long struggle for equality, rather than a landmark in then nation’s ongoing arc toward justice.

For white nationalists, however, the Barack Obama presidency was its own modern Reconstruction and, thus, the election of Trump the beginning of another Redemption.

Any number of data points might confirm white nationalist hopes (and others’ fears): Steve Bannon in the president’s inner circle; Attorney General Sessions’ intent to crack down on drugs and discrimination against whites; and a Republican Party that just cannot quit its president, no matter how far right he tacks on social issues. Of course, these new events come on top of preexisting racial inequalities in nearly every aspect of life.

But I believe the defining moments in our moral arc are the swift, sharp rebukes of this “redemption.” Within a week of the violence in Charlottesville, politicans, business leaders and individuals of all political stripes made it clear that racist ideology and its overt manifestations are no longer acceptable. Equally important, people of good will have taken to the streets to show that they will not quietly abide intimidating and hurtful rhetoric.

White supremacists have seemingly sparked what not even Martin Luther King Jr. could: a supermajority insisting that America will not abandon equality and inclusiveness.

What the future holds

Jim Crow laws dominated everyday life for a century following Reconstruction. That so-called Redemption was so deep-rooted that it took a multi-decade civil rights movement just to eliminate explicit discrimination in the law books. Many of the practical, sociological and psychological effects of slavery and racism, however, are still with us today.

Sadly, there are those who believe we still need a modern Redemption: White supremacists and neo-Nazis came out in force to defend a Confederate statue. Yet, the lesson to take from Charlottesville is not that those ideas persist, but that they are being sharply and quickly rebuked by a moral majority. Unlike times of the past, there is no mainstream constituency willing to overtly defend racism. And so, unlike the years after the Civil War, no actual redemption period will begin, much less live a long life.

The public response to Charlottesville has shown hope and promise for a future of equality. AP Photo/Steven Senne

Charlottesville also reveals that our moral arc is not unbending. It will flex uncomfortably at times, but it continues to move toward justice.

This is no guarantee of what will happen tomorrow. As King made clear, progress requires that people of good faith struggle against inequality. Our nation’s growing distaste for racism should not be mistaken for the actual will to fight for equality. In many ways, complacency is what made Charlottesville possible in the first place.

The ConversationThe United States is a better place today than it was a hundred years ago, and it can be even better in the years to come. But I believe we can achieve that only if we maintain an open dialogue and stand up for the equality that still proves elusive for so many Americans.

Derek W. Black, Professor of Law, University of South Carolina

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

August 29, 2017 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Who Is to Blame As the National Teacher Shortage Enters Its Third Year?

For the third year in a row, public schools will begin the year with too few qualified teachers to cover their classes.  Every state in the country has reported a shortage to the U.S. Department of Education.  The shortage appears to have eased in some places and intensified in others.  Edweek reports 

[Oklahoma] issued a record-setting 1,160 emergency certifications in 2016-17 and 855 by the beginning of August for this academic year. These certifications allow people without a teaching certificate to teach for one year, or allow a certified teacher to teach a new subject before getting recertified.

And in Nevada, the fast-growing Clark County district, which includes Las Vegas and is the fifth-largest in the country, is starting its school year with almost 400 teaching vacancies—significant, though a far cry from the more than 900 openings the district had at the start of 2015-16.

Numbers like these, however, vastly understate the problem in some states.  Confronting an unmanageable shortfall, states like California, Arizona, and others have simply changed the law regarding the credentials it takes to step foot in the classroom.  California developed a program that allowed interns to become full-time teachers so long as they promised to complete their studies on the weekends.  And by intern, I mean someone who is just starting their education studies.  This summer Arizona passed a law to allow people without any formal teacher training to enter the classroom, so long as they had a bachelor's degree or five years of experience in a relevant field.  In other words, those schools that report a fully staffed faculty may have a group of teachers who are far less qualified than they were in past years.

As I explain in a recent article, this shortage is not simply part of the regular ebb and flow of the market.  It is of states' own making.  During the recession, they over-gouged public education budgets, went to war on teachers themselves, and took money that could have went to traditional public schools and drove it to choice programs.  The effect was to scare new and prospective teachers away from the profession.  The teacher pipeline was more than cut in half in California.  And when states' revenues rebounded following the recession, states refused to undo the damage they had done.  Instead, they simply set a new normal, continuing to fund education at levels lower than before the recession.  Even today, roughly half of states spend less in real dollar terms on education than they did in 2008.  This is to say nothing of the war on teachers that some states are still willing to wage.

So while I bemoan the struggles that individual districts are facing, the real culprit is their state legislatures.  And while court have no direct responsibility for education, they have, at least, enabled these legislatures.  In prior decades, courts have forcefully intervened to block these types of assaults on public education and insisted on state legislatures adopting rational policies to carry out their constitutional duties regarding education.  Over the last decade, however, courts have increasingly looked the other way.

The abstract to Averting Educational Crisis: Funding Cuts, Teacher Shortages, and the Dwindling Commitment to Public Education offers this summary of trends as they stood in 2016 and teases a few solutions:

Two-thirds of states are funding education at a lower level today than they did in 2008. Some states are a full twenty percent or more below levels of just a few years earlier. The effect on schools has been dramatic. States have only exacerbated the problem by reducing teachers’ rights and benefits. These attacks on teachers, combined with funding decreases, have scared many prospective teachers away from the profession all together. The net result has been an extreme shortage of teachers nationwide. This past fall, large numbers of public schools opened without enough certified teachers to fill classrooms, relying instead on substitutes and interns on a full-time basis. In other instances, schools simply stopped offering certain classes. Decades of social science demonstrate these funding and teaching policies will have serious academic impacts on students. They will likely widen achievement gaps and impose learning deficits that some students will never overcome. 

In the face of analogous threats, courts in the past have regularly intervened to protect educational quality and funding. Yet this time around, courts have almost uniformly refused to intervene and rarely offered a compelling reasoning for the refusal. This judicial passivism regarding education marks a troubling new trend. It suggests that the constitutional right to education may exist only in theory and that students are losing the constitutional leverage to demand that states repair the damage that they have caused. Likewise, nothing will prevent states from pursuing similar retractions again in the future.

This Article offers a doctrinal approach to reverse both educational retractions and judicial disengagement. Current trends, however, cannot be reversed without acknowledging the potential limits of judicial intervention during crisis. In particular, a serious crisis incites fear and political expediency, which can prompt legislatures to ignore court orders that purport to remedy the crisis. This disregard is inherently problematic for both education rights and the basic legitimacy of judicial authority, regardless of the subject matter. In this respect, the solution to the devaluation of education rights is also a step toward strengthening judicial authority. In education, courts must begin to incorporate prospective doctrines and rules that reduce the likelihood of judicial standoffs with legislatures. Simply put, future court orders should seek to avert crises by addressing them before they occur. This Article proposes three specific steps courts can take to achieve this end.

On one level, this may all sound like lofty theorizing, but the point of the paper is far more practical: the immediate crises that schools face are not ones that courts or states can easily fix after-the-fact.  Recessions will come no matter what.  The risk of shortages will always be present.  The solution, then, is to plan ahead.  

Schools deliver education not as single year chunks, but as collective thirteen year experiences.  States must have processes and plans in place that anticipate problems, allowing them to weather recessions.  This is no easy thing to do.  The politics are predisposed against it.  But I argue in the article that by consistently holding states accountable and adopting a few common sense standards, courts can begin to prompt states toward better decision making.  States might protect their teacher pipelines through thick and thin so that they might not need to issue emergency waivers and establish alternative teacher programs every decade or so.


August 24, 2017 in School Funding, Teachers | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Court Finds That Arizona's Decision to Bar Mexican-American Studies Was Motivated by Intentional Discrimination

Yesterday, a federal district court held that Arizona's decision to ban Mexican-American studies and the local district's enforcement of that ban were motivated by intentional discrimination.  The court also held that restricting students access to that information violated the First Amendment.  

As a matter of substance, the case marks a major victory for multicultural studies and places clear limits on partisan and other illegitimate attacks on them.  As a matter of Fourteenth Amendment and First Amendment doctrine and analysis, the case is also noteworthy for professors.  The opinion is a textbook example of basic constitutional analysis.  Anyone looking to bone up on how to apply intentional discrimination and free speech doctrine should give it a read.  Assuming the case stands on appeal, it will make a nice addition to education law casebooks or, in a modified form, a handout for class exercise.

First, the court recites the basic Arlington Heights standard for proving intentional discrimination in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The case is now in its 40th anniversary and somehow stood the test of time (notwithstanding how hard to makes it for plaintiffs to win discrimination cases).  Under Arlington Heights, plaintiffs must show the defendant acted with a "discriminatory purpose."  They can show this through circumstantial evidence, including: 1) the discriminatory impact of the decision; "2) the historical background of the decision; 3) the sequence of events leading up to the challenged action; 4) the defendant's departures from normal procedures or substantive conclusions; and 5) the relevant legislative or administrative history."  

As on a law exam, the task here is to avoid looking just for smoking guns and instead walk through each factor in a "sensitive inquiry."  The details can add up.  That is exactly what the district court did, by the end of its opinion, it had amassed so much circumstantial evidence that the case would seem to stand even if the court botched a few facts.  While the court pointed to direct evidence of racial animus in the case, it spent most of its time examining the more subtle details.  It pointed out that the history of the program was to counteract the harmful effects of past segregation.  It identified two procedural irregularities in how the Arizona statute was passed: a) the statute was targeted at a particular district rather than a statewide issue and b) other measures could have been used to deal with the purported problem with the program.  

Next, the court examined the legislative history, inferring illegitimate motivation by many of the statute's proponents.  Of particular interest was the court's willingness to look at "code words"--words that on their face might sound neutral, but in context could be used to convey racial animus.  For instance, "Raza," "un-American," "radical," "communist," and "Aztlan" were all derogatory terms aimed at Mexican Americans during the debate over the program.  These terms were not just attempts to win the debate, but were demeaning and racially charged.  A less careful court could have dismissed their important.  The court revealed, for instance, that the state superintendent had used "Raza" as a substitute for Mexican American, stating the program was "Raza studies for the Raza kids."

With these motivations laid bare, the First Amendment analysis was easy.  The court recognized that the state and its schools have the authority to control the curriculum, but there is a major exception: when the control is exercised for partisan or illicit reasons rather than pedagogical concerns.  As the Supreme Court held in Island Trees School District v. Pico, partisan motivations render an otherwise permissible curricular decision unconstitutional.  Applying that standard, the trial court found that:

The stated policy of A.R.S. § 15-112 is to reduce racism in schools, see A.R.S. § 15-111, which is a legitimate pedagogical objective. The theory of plaintiffs’ First Amendment claim is that reducing racism is only a pretextual objective, and that the statute was in fact enacted and enforced for narrowly political, partisan, and racist reasons.

The Court concludes that plaintiffs have proven their First Amendment claim because both enactment and enforcement were motivated by racial animus.

Get the full opinion here: Download 468 Order and Opinion

August 23, 2017 in Discrimination, First Amendment, Racial Integration and Diversity | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Colleges Need Affirmative Action--But It Can Be Expanded By Eboni Nelson

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Race-neutral affirmative action can help identify first-generation students like Blanca Diaz and LaQuintah Garrett. AP Photo/Amy Anthony
Eboni Nelson, University of South Carolina

In 2003, Justice Antonin Scalia predicted that the Supreme Court’s sanctioning of race-conscious affirmative action in higher education would spark future litigation for years to come. And right he was. From defeated claims of discrimination against the University of Texas at Austin to an ongoing lawsuit against Harvard, colleges continue to come under attack for considering race as a factor in admissions decisions.

The recent report of the Department of Justice’s possible investigation of “intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions” demonstrates that the assaults aren’t likely to end anytime soon.

As a professor of law and scholar dedicated to ensuring equal educational opportunities for students of color, I believe now is an important time to earnestly consider other methods for diversifying student bodies. Race-neutral alternatives could effectively consider such factors as socioeconomic status and educational background, while supplementing more traditional affirmative action.

Lawyer Bert Rein and his client, Abigail Fisher, failed in their discrimination case against UT Austin’s affirmative action policies. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

‘Race-based’ vs. ‘race-conscious’

When thinking about affirmative action, it’s important to first define (and debunk) a few key terms, starting with “race-based” and “race-conscious” affirmative action.

“Race-based affirmative action” is a misnomer often used to describe some college admissions policies. “Race-based” implies that an admissions decision is made solely because of or based upon an applicant’s race or ethnicity, which could not be farther from the truth. A university’s decision to admit, deny or waitlist an applicant is based upon myriad criteria, ranging from standardized test scores to state of residency. Race is just one of many admissions factors a university may consider.

This approach is more appropriately termed “race-conscious.”

Schools that employ race-conscious admissions policies do so in order to achieve the educational, social and democratic benefits of a diverse student body.

As the Supreme Court held in Gratz v. Bollinger, race is not and cannot be the determining factor under a constitutional race-conscious plan. Therefore, when people claim that an African-American or Hispanic student was admitted because of race, they’re often not only inaccurate but also dismissive of the student’s other numerous attributes that played a role in the university’s decision.

Race-neutral alternatives

Opponents of race-conscious affirmative action often assert that such policies are racist or disproportionately benefit privileged minority students from middle- and upper-class backgrounds.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor delivered the majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, which asserted that schools must consider ‘workable race-neutral alternatives.’ AP Photo/Susan Walsh

For its part, the Supreme Court is also skeptical of using racial classifications in governmental decision-making. As a result, it has held that institutions of higher education must afford serious consideration to “workable race-neutral alternatives” before implementing a race-conscious policy.

Importantly, the court’s use of the term “race-neutral” does not mean “race-blind.” That is, universities are permitted to think about how alternative admissions criteria could help them achieve their diversity goals. Race-neutral criteria could include socioeconomic background, high school or undergraduate institution, or class rank. In other words, these are factors that may contribute to a school’s racial diversity, but applicants themselves are not considered based on race.

In some cases, it’s proven difficult for race-neutral admissions policies to achieve the same levels of racial diversity as those achieved through direct consideration of race. However, such measures have been useful in helping to diversify student bodies when used in conjunction with or in lieu of race-conscious affirmative action.

The viability of race-neutral alternatives

When coupled with the stark racial disparities that continue to plague some professions, the uncertain future of race-conscious affirmative action calls for a renewed focus on alternatives that look beyond race alone.

TV isn’t the only place where the legal profession remains one of the whitest. USA Network

My co-researchers, Dr. Ronald Pitner and Professor Carla D. Pratt, and I recently took a look at one particular aspect of higher education diversity: law school admissions.

Law schools play a unique role in training our country’s next generation of leaders. It is, in fact, vital to the future of our democracy that we continue to provide students from historically underrepresented racial groups with access to legal education. And yet, the legal profession was recently determined to be “one of the least racially diverse professions in the nation.”

To help law schools improve their diversity, we examined the relationship between race and race-neutral identity factors in law school admissions. The project, which was funded in part by a grant from AccessLex Institute, surveyed over a thousand first-year law students at schools throughout the country and asked about various aspects of their identity, such as socioeconomic status and educational background.

Our findings indicated that African-American and Hispanic students were significantly more likely than both white and Asian/Pacific Islander students to have qualified for free or reduced lunch programs in elementary or secondary school, had a parent or guardian who received public assistance when the student was a dependent minor, and received a Pell Grant during their undergraduate studies – all of which are race-neutral factors that schools could consider in admissions decisions.

Race-neutral affirmative action can help identify first-generation students and students from low-income families. AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

How admissions could change

Based on the sample of participants in our study, it’s clear that privilege did not catapult all students of color to law school. Many of them had to overcome the structural inequalities of poverty, race and public education to embark on a legal career. Expanding opportunities for these and other minority students will benefit not only legal education and the legal profession, but also society more broadly.

Race-neutral admissions policies could help identify and create opportunities for these students.

To be clear, I do not advocate for the wholesale substitution of traditional race-conscious admissions measures with the factors we studied. Race-conscious policies continue to be the most effective means by which to create diverse student bodies.

However, we encourage law schools and other institutions of higher education to utilize these and other race-neutral admissions factors as a means of complying with the Supreme Court’s affirmative action mandates and testing the viability of policies that take such factors into account.

The ConversationDoing so will help ensure that traditionally underrepresented students of color will continue to have access to colleges and universities that serve as gateways to career, financial and life opportunities.

Eboni Nelson, Professor of Law, University of South Carolina

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

August 22, 2017 in Racial Integration and Diversity | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

How a Southern City Achieved Our Nation's Greatest School Integration Success and Then Struggled to Save It

Pamela Grundy’s new book, Color and Character: West Charlotte High and the American Struggle over Educational Equality, offers a detailed and personal look into our nation’s most significant integration triumph and its subsequent disintegration.  “From the mid-1970s through the early 1990s, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was the most desegregated major school system in the nation.”  The story of that triumph is inspiring and a testament to what is possible when communities and public institutions come together in pursuit of an important mission.  She tells this story beautifully.  One is left wondering why places like Atlanta, Dallas, Cleveland, and so many others did not share similar success. 

At least one important factor is that Charlotte had Julius Chambers—a hometown civil rights advocate who would go onto to be a national leader for decades.  But Julius was just Julius back then.  He took bold stances and demands in the courts.  Julius did not demand that Charlotte just tinker with dismantling segregation; he demanded that it immediately create what one might call perfect integration.  His vision was so bold that it shocked both whites and blacks.  Ironically, the district court bought it.

But Julius was just one attorney.  Real world success depended on the people who would teach and learn in Charlotte’s schools.  For that story, Pamela Grundy turns to West Charlotte High—the “undisputed flagship” of Charlotte’s success.  Much of that story comes through the first-hand accounts and quotes of students and teachers.  The opportunity to hear them speak, rather than a scholar characterize them, grounds the book.  In today’s world of distant school statistics and profiles, this stylistic choice is refreshing.  Students and teachers tell the reader what West Charlotte High was really about, how it made them feel, and what it made possible for their community, their school, and students of all races. Those students built relationships and communities that gave them meaning. 

Charlotte was such a deep-felt success that when President Reagan came to town and criticized forced busing,  the city rebuked him.  The Charlotte Observer wrote “You Were Wrong, Mr. President” and the yearbook students at West Charlotte wrote: “They said it wouldn’t work.  They said it isn’t working.  Busing opponents, however, need only take a quick survey of West Charlotte High Schools to see that busing has worked.”  They emphasized that student came from across the city to participate in a common project.  They “didn’t just make the best of an ‘experiment’ but took advantage of the situation . . . academically, athletically and socially.”

One wishes the story could end there or simply march on as inevitable history.  Instead, the second half of the book is a story of loss—one that reveals just how fragile integration and equality can be.  In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the desegregation plan would be lifted in Charlotte.  Its schools would resegregate. They would become separate and unequal.  And officials would embark on a number of deals with the devil—deals that would try to make educational opportunity equal in the context of racial and socio-economic segregation.  In effect, they would concede to segregation.  West Charlotte would fall from its position of “flagship” and struggle to retain teachers, students, and academic achievement. 

The second half of the story reveals the interesting dynamics of local, regional, and national change, which quite frankly, I haven’t spent too much time considering as of late.  Everything today seems national today: No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Every Student Succeeds Act and school choice. 

The early years of desegregation demonstrated the ability of one community to lead the charge of change when very little else would have suggested it was possible.  In other words, politics and change are local.  Yet, the second half of the book shows national politics overwhelming Charlotte.  Charlotte made plenty of mistakes and maybe had lost its integration spunk, but so much of Charlotte’s loss was not entirely of its own doing.  Charlotte, like every other community, was besieged by the negative social and cultural effects of national phenomena like No Child Left Behind, individualism, and school choice.  And the Great Recession hit Charlotte as hard as any city.  These outside stimuli made resegregation and inequality all the more likely. 

Charlotte could, of course, have resisted.  Louisville, Kentucky, did.  But Louisville, Kentucky, had grown far more conscious about integration and had a different local context.  The one lesson Grundy seems to want us to take away is that equality is a continual struggle, never fully won or lost, at least not yet.  And she still offers us hope for Charlotte, but I will leave that to your own reading of the book.

August 16, 2017 in Racial Integration and Diversity | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Missouri School Censors Gay Students and Then Apologizes, But Is It Still Missing the Point?

Local news reports that a Missouri high school censored the yearbook comments of two openly gay students.  The yearbook allows seniors to write a quote or statement under their picture, which becomes part of the published yearbook.  One student wrote, “Of course I dress well. I didn’t spend all that time in the closet for nothing.”  The other wrote, “If ‘Harry Potter taught us anything, it’s that no one should have to live in the closet.”

Without telling the boys, the school redacted those statements from the yearbook.  After being called out, the principal issued this explanation:

District administrators were made aware of concerns regarding the removal of senior quotes from the school yearbook. Each year, graduating seniors are provided an opportunity to pick a favorite quote to be placed in the yearbook. In an effort to protect our students, quotes that could potentially offend another student or groups of students are not published. It is the school’s practice to err on the side of caution. Doing so in this case had the unintentional consequence of offending the very students the practice was designed to protect. We sincerely apologize to those students.   All KSD staff understand the importance of inclusion and acceptance especially in an educational setting. We work diligently to help every student feel safe, supported, and included. District staff participate in ongoing training around issues of diversity and support student organizations that do the same. That being said, we acknowledge our mistake and will use it as a learning opportunity to improve in the future.  

Two things strike me as off in this statement.  First, I see nothing offensive about what the students said.  It may be that some students at the school object to homosexuality, but that does not make the students' statements offensive in an of themselves.  As one of the gay students suggested, this has little to do with offensive speech.  Rather, the district “mak[es] me feel like you’re ashamed of having a gay student.”  In other words, it is hard to imagine a legitimate reason for striking these statements in the first place.  Who exactly made the decision and why?  

Second, what exactly is the district admitting to be a "mistake" and "learning opportunity"?  Is the mistake not letting the students know their statements would be redacted or is it the redaction itself?  If it is the former, the district is missing the point.  If it is the latter, it seems the district can take corrective action now.  It can hand out stickers, inserts, or something to be placed in the yearbooks to correct the error.  Since they don't suggest that correction, I wonder if they don't see the real mistake.  If so, there is still a problem.

I suspect the district misread its cheat sheet on Supreme Court law.  The Court decided a school newspaper case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, in 1988.  In it, the Court held that the district could exercise editorial control over the school newspaper, reasoning that the newspaper was part of the school curriculum and represents school-sponsored speech.  Thus, the school could exercise style and content control so long as its actions were related to "legitimate pedagogical concerns."  

The Missouri school might think that the case fits because both newspapers and yearbooks are both school publications, but the school's concern with these boys' statements doesn't seem to have anything to do with pedagogical concerns of the sort recognized in Hazelwood.  There, fact checking, balanced statements, mature subjects, confidentiality, and the like were all at play.   Also, this section of the yearbook seems far more like an open forum than speech that might be construed as the school's.  The school refers to "offensiveness," but that doesn't sound like pedagogy.  Offensiveness falls under the Court's decision in Bethel v. Fraser, but there the speech was deemed to be lewd, vulgar, and plainly offensive. Applying this standard to the boys' yearbook statements is even more problematic.  Even if I am wrong and they are offensive under some rationale, there is no way they are "plainly offensive."

Getting the law right is no easy thing for schools, so I don't mean to beat them up too much.  But the difficulty of getting it right cannot be an excuse for a school to do whatever it wants and make it rationales and excuses after the fact.

August 14, 2017 in First Amendment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Federal Court Finds Texas Teacher Evaluation System Is a "House of Cards," Issuing Ruling That Helps It Fall

The federal district court in Houston Federation of Teachers v. Houston Independent School District handed the “war on teachers” a huge loss this summer, acknowledging the major flaws in the district’s teacher evaluation system.  Similar to many other states, Texas operates a Value Added Teacher Assessment system.  Under Houston’s implementation policy:

student growth will whenever possible be calculated by a value-added statistical model called the Educational Value–Added Assessment System (EVAAS), developed by private software company SAS and licensed for use by [the district]. The EVAAS system measures teacher effectiveness by attempting to track the teacher's impact on student test scores over time. The details are more complicated, but in general a teacher's EVAAS score is based on comparing the average test score growth of students taught by the teacher compared to the statewide average for students in that grade or course. The raw EVAAS score is generated by SAS's proprietary software and is then converted to a test statistic referred to as the “Teacher Gain Index” (TGI), based on the ratio of the EVAAS score to its standard error. The TGI is sorted into one of five “value-added” effectiveness ratings.

The district then uses those ratings to make employment decisions for teachers, including termination.

Some may recall that lawsuit grabbing headlines when it was first filed.  Of particular note was that the district had recognized one of its teachers as award-winning just one year prior to ranking him as low-performing based on his student growth percentile model.

As I detail in The Constitutional Challenge to Teacher Tenure, 104 Cal. L. Rev. 75 (2016), these value added systems, along with their close cousins (student growth percentile models), are riddled with several fundamental flaws: tests that do not match the curriculum, failing to account for demographic variables, instability in ratings across years, arbitrary cut-off scores in the effectiveness ratings, and conflating correlation with causation.

All of these substantive problems in the systems translate into serious constitutional concerns, most notably procedural due process.  The constitution entitles teachers to notice and an opportunity to respond when their jobs are placed in jeopardy.  Yet, these systems do not provide any notice of a particular problem with a teacher’s instruction and, thus, they are in no position to know who to respond in terms of improving their teaching or refuting the statistical evaluation.  Classic examples of due process violations.

One of the biggest jokes was in Florida, where some teachers are rated on the test scores students receive in other classes.  To be crystal clear, their evaluation score is based on how students perform in someone else’s class.

Reluctant to stand in the way of reforms sweeping the nation and mandated by the federal government, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals was willing to paper over the problems and reason that Florida’s attempt to improve teaching overall was sufficient to justify the program.  (I debunk the outcome in that case here.)

The federal district court in Texas made no such excuses for the state's teacher evaluation system, concluding that “cost considerations trump accuracy in teacher evaluation.”  In other words, the district new the system was flawed, but did not want to invest the resources to improve it.  As a result, the entire state system was a “house-of-cards.”

[T]he wrong score of a single teacher could alter the scores of every other teacher in the district. This interconnectivity means that the accuracy of one score hinges upon the accuracy of all. Thus, without access to data supporting all teacher scores, any teacher facing discharge for a low value-added score will necessarily be unable to verify that her own score is error-free.

. . .

The EVAAS score might be erroneously calculated for any number of reasons, ranging from data-entry mistakes to glitches in the computer code itself. Algorithms are human creations, and subject to error like any other human endeavor. HISD has acknowledged that mistakes can occur in calculating a teacher's EVAAS score; moreover, even when a mistake is found in a particular teacher's score, it will not be promptly corrected. As HISD candidly explained in response to a frequently asked question, “Why can't my value-added analysis be recalculated?”

Once completed, any re-analysis can only occur at the system level. What this means is that if we change information for one teacher, we would have to re-run the analysis for the entire district, which has two effects: one, this would be very costly for the district, as the analysis itself would have to be paid for again; and two, this re-analysis has the potential to change all other teachers' reports.

For these reasons, the court denied the district's motion for summary judgment.  


August 9, 2017 in Teachers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 7, 2017

States' New Plans for Complying with the Every Student Succeeds Act Confirms Just How Little the Law Expects of States

Last fall, in Abandoning the Federal Role in Education, I wrote that the Every Student Succeeds Act "moves education in a direction that was unthinkable just a few short years ago: no definite equity provisions, no demands for specific student achievement, and no enforcement mechanism to prompt states to consistently pursue equity or achievement. The ESSA reverses the federal role in education and returns nearly full discretion to the states."  As a result, I predicted the Act would lead to vague state plans, obfuscation, widening inequality, and downright confusion.

Thus far, most of these predictions have come true.  Earlier  this year, Secretary DeVos, expecting that Congress would repeal the Obama's administrations ESSA regulations, changed the deadline for states to submit their plans and suggested they would have flexibility in their plans.  The problem is that states actually need federal leadership.  As of today, less than a third of states have their ESSA compliance plans in.  And those that have their plans in have done little to dispel my concerns. As a new report by Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success reveals, the sixteen state plans submitted thus far do not ensure that all students' performance is counted in state accountability plans.  

While there were promising elements, our peer reviewers found that most state plans failed to provide significant details about how their systems would work in practice. For example:
  • How will schools be held accountable for the performance of all subgroups of students?
  • How will schools be identified for improvement?
  • What steps will schools identified for improvement need to take, and how will they demonstrate they’ve made sufficient progress to exit improvement status?

A new NPR story points out that this "should raise some red flags concerning kids with disabilities, English language learners and those from low-income families."  States have thrown so many measures of school quality into their metrics that the public is unlikely to know what school quality actually means or what schools are required to do to address it.

In the end, these plans reveal the central flaw in the ESSA:  its success rests on the extent to which states are willing to engage in good faith efforts to provide equal and adequate opportunities.  As NPR writes, parents must simply trust their states.  Unfortunately, recent history reveals there is almost no reason to place this faith in states.  They have slashed public education budgets, manipulated test scores, and watched school segregation increase.

This is not to say that federal reform has been well-crafted.  It has not.  But the solution is better federal policy, not giving up.

Read a summary of the ESSA, its flaws, and proposed solutions here.



August 7, 2017 in Federal policy | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Opportunity for Public to Participate in the Direction of U.S. Department of Education

Nora Gordon and Eloise Pasachoff penned a new essay in Edweek.  They implore the public to go back to the basics and engage the notice and comment process that dictates the development of federal policy.  For all the objectionable things Secretary DeVos has done or promoted since taking the job, the public push back has primarily been in newspapers. While newspapers provide a means for political accountability, the administration is completely free to ignore them.  What the administration must, however, address are the comments that individuals and groups make as part of the formal notice and comment period surrounding changes in federal regulations and guidance.

Gordon and Pasachoff remind us that in February, "President Donald Trump called on federal agencies to review their regulations and identify which to cut."  DeVos is now digging into that work and has "issued a notice in the Federal Register asking the public to identify 'unduly costly or unnecessarily burdensome' regulations and guidance documents by submitting comments to the Education Department by Aug. 21."  This process, however, can be used to do more than target those policies that need to be eliminated, it can be used to focus on things that must be kept (because others will certainly be calling for elimination).

Gordon and Pasachoff note various recent changes that the public might comment on, including the "roll[] back [of] Obama administration’s civil rights protections for transgender students; . . . freezing the implementation of the Obama-era borrower-defense-to-repayment rule, which would shield borrowers from having to repay debt accrued at institutions of higher education that lured them with substantially false information; . . . state ESSA plans[; and] . . . indications that [the Department] intends to change course on the Obama administration’s framework for addressing sexual assault on campuses."

Not only do the comments that the public makes require some response (if if only internal to the Department), they require a "cost-benefit analysis to make sure that rules are for the common good."

Gordon and Pasachoff offer these directions on engaging the process:

The more specific you can make your comments, the better. You can find the Education Department’s existing regulations at Title 34 of the electronic version of the Code of Federal Regulations, and the significant guidance documents are also available online. Explain what you like, referring to specific language. Offer language on desired changes, citing provisions by number. Alternative policy solutions are welcome. You can submit comments on both regulations and guidance online (at docket number ED-2017-OS-0074-0001) by the strict deadline of Aug. 21.

Read the full essay here.

August 2, 2017 in Federal policy | Permalink | Comments (0)