Civil rights groups pan key Obama policies
Seven leading civil rights organizations criticized key elements of the Obama administration’s education agenda this week, including three of the administration’s four options for turning around failing schools, its enthusiasm for charter schools, the use of competitive grants like Race to the Top and teacher evaluations based on test scores. But choosing to muffle complaints instead of promoting them, key figures in the coalition canceled a press conference and instead personally met with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Monday.
Both Ducan and President Obama are scheduled to speak this week at the national convention of the Urban League, one of the signers of the 17-page document. Other signers include the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The often blunt assessment is as much an attempt to head off further expansion of some of Obama’s program through the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as to express dissatisfaction with the president’s initiatives so far. The criticisms were contained in the coalition’s agenda, Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity to Learn, which advocates for universal early childhood education, incentives for hiring effective teachers in low-income areas and an expansion of magnet programs to counter racial and ethnic inequalities.
In one instance, the administration has acknowledged a flaw: the lack of parental and community involvement in decisions affecting persistently low-achieving schools. The coalition said the administration paid lip service to it, which is true in the current round of School Improvement Grants, in which schools will make drastic changes in exchange for as much as $6 million over three years.
The coalition criticized three of the four choices districts have for the money: shutting down a school (closure option), firing half of the staff and the principal (turnaround option) and bringing in a charter schools (restart option). Pressed by a federal deadline to spend the money, in many states, districts are acting without time for thoughtful planning or community reaction.
“If solving the educational challenges in these communities was as simple as ‘fire and rehire’ or ‘close and restart,’ the problem would have been solved many years ago, as both teacher and school leader departures and school closures already occur at a much higher rate in low-income and high-minority communities,” the framework said.
The coalition says closure and turnaround models should be a last resort, and that, in fact, is what most districts are deciding. They are overwhelmingly choosing the “transformation” option, the least disruptive and more collaborative approach, which calls for an extended day, adoption of performance reviews and the replacement of a principal who has been around three or more years. But, under the new SIG regulations, districts can choose the transformation model for no more than half of the schools – an arbitrary figure. As a result, to get the federal money, some districts are being forced to close schools or fire staffs.
Policies without supportive research
The coalition chastises the administration for imposing decisions affecting poor neighborhoods that research hasn’t shown to work. That’s true in the case of large-scale dismissals; but, then again, the administration also has scant evidence behind its intriguing and appealing Promise Neighborhoods initiative, which the coalition praises profusely and wants to see greatly expanded. Based on the work of the Harlem Children’s Zone, it would require large-scale spending on preschool, social services and health care in poor neighborhoods.
The coalition also expresses “reservations about the extensive reliance on charter schools” in turnaround strategies. It points to the often-cited study by CREDO at Stanford that found charters in general are no more effective than district schools in raising student achievement. What the coalition didn’t say was other studies, including a recent federally funded study by Mathematica Policy Research, concluded that charters working with disadvantaged, urban children are much more effective than suburban charters serving the middle class. That’s a critical distinction for organizations committed to dissolving the achievement gap.
The coalition also condemned the administration’s use of competitive grants, such as Race to the Top, in awarding money. “If education is a civil right, children in ‘winning’ states should not be the only ones who have the opportunity to learn in high-quality environments,” the framework said. “By emphasizing competitive incentives in this economic climate, the majority of low-income and minority students will be left behind and, as a result, the United States will be left behind as a global leader.”
But in a speech Tuesday, announcing the finalists of the second round of Race to the Top, Duncan was unapologetic for programs that have been surprisingly effective levers for change.
“Let’s not get sidetracked in a false choice between competitive and formula funding – because we need both,” he said, noting that even if all of the requests for competitive grants next year are approved, four-fifths of K-12 money would still be determined by automatic formulas.
In terms of encouraging states and districts to adopt performance based pay, change laws restricting charter schools, pursuing innovative programs and committing to using data systems, he said, “It is absolutely stunning to see how much change has happened at the state and local level because of these incentive programs.”