Saturday, October 23, 2010

What Michelle Rhee still means to education reform

Photo courtesy of TIME Magazine
With Michelle Rhee's resignation, Jack reflects from Washington on her methods and style of leadership:

Last week, Michelle Rhee, the controversial figure at the helm of the Washington, D.C. public school system since 2007 resigned. Effective as the end of this month, Rhee's resignation comes in step with the primary loss of Mayor Adrian Fenty, her political patron, to Vincent Gray.While frequently lauded by the media and prominent figures in the education reform debate, Rhee's methods in Washington frequently drew the ire of parents and teachers alike. Owing to excess capacity, she closed schools, promoted merit pay, and popularized a model of dismissing low performing teachers.

For those in the education reform community, including many in the Obama Administration, Rhee's style appeared a model of decisive action in addressing the root causes of all that ails our public school. She, as Arne Duncan has often noted, delivered the kind of results that the education reform movement would like to see accomplished across the country.

Results aside (and there are big questions over whether Rhee accomplished half of what has been claimed in terms of student achievement and infrastructural improvements), let's focus on her methods and the question of leadership. The sort of leadership that is needed in our public schools is the kind that makes tough decisions and holds educators accountable without alienating an entire profession in the process. Many praised Rhee's tenure as D.C. schools chancellor as groundbreaking and exemplary, but the fact that so many teachers and administrators stridently resisted her efforts seems to imply that the combative approach to reform has very clear limitations.

Rather than celebrating ruthlessness on magazine covers and on daytime talk shows, a premium should be placed on collaboration and cooperation. After all, convincing a wide variety of individuals and interests to work together toward positive results is truly difficult work. Dramatizing confrontational tactics such as mass firings promotes the easy way out of our biggest educational challenges.A figure can make a name for herself as a maverick taking tough stands and going it alone, then simply resign as a martyr of reform when the going gets tough and the public demands real compromise and real results.Surely it's not that simple.

It seems instead that real, lasting improvements to public education – the kind that most benefit and empower low income students and communities of color – are the kind that cannot be made by one-liners and enough media exposure. They are the kind that are accomplished through on-going conversation, collaborative problem solving, and seriously rethinking some of the basic assumptions that steer the existing public education system. Real leadership in this important national discussion must be humble, democratic, and rooted in the very communities that are most affected by these decisions.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

San Francisco punishes parents to lower truancy rate

Director of Community Action Malaika Parker is quoted by El Tecolote in their piece on the San Francisco Unified School District's (SFUSD) new anti-truancy program being piloted in the Mission District. The initiative would use "carrot and stick" methods, including $2,500 fines and jail time for parents of chronically truant students. 

Malaika challenges the program, as it criminalizes parents: "Too much of the school reform discussion is focused on what parents need to do differently instead of looking at the root causes of students’ disengagement from the schools.”

Check out the full article on

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

It's back to school, but not necessarily back to reality for Obama Administration

From Washington, Amina reflects on President Obama's back-to-school messaging:

There was lots of pep and encouragement for students in Obama’s address to the nation’s students. His “you can do it!” message is an odd overlay to the reality of education today, particularly for students of color. “This is a country that gives all its daughters and all its sons a fair chance. A chance to make the most of their lives. A chance to fulfill their God-given potential”, remarked the President. As the graduation rate for Black and Latino youth hovers around 50% (or lower!) the words sound hollow at best. The words are a direct contradiction to the schools many students will meet this fall. Yet, I guess there’s nothing peppy about telling students that we’ve simply failed many of them. There's no positive note to telling children that they’re entering schools with almost unbearable budget shortages. California school districts are shortening their school calendar year to save money. In Obama’s own Chicago schools they cut 200 school buses, giving students longer journeys to school. Although the President's address may not recognize it, many students returning to school can’t help but see the contradiction in his encouragement and their reality.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Justice Matters & Los Cenzontles Host Cultural Event: Home–Grown Solutions for National Education Reform

Justice Matters and Los Cenzontles will host a cultural event and community advocacy forum on Wednesday, September 8 at 4 PM at Los Cenzontles Mexican Art Center, 13108 San Pablo Avenue, San Pablo, CA  94805.

East Bay families and neighbors are invited watch a four-year-old dance troupe, get their hands dirty with arts projects and enjoy traditional food, all while sharing their vision for change in public schools. This unique forum celebrates art, while asking parents and the community to collaborate on priorities for education reform and share their experiences and opinions with policymakers.

This authentic gathering is part of a state-wide effort to build support for arts education and arts-integrated education as a solution to many of the challenges facing schools today.  The effort is led by a state-wide coalition of advocacy groups which includes Alameda County Office of Education’s Alliance for Arts Learning Leadership, Justice Matters and Los Cenzontles. Aligning with a national effort led by the Americans for the Arts Action Fund’s 50 State in 50 Days initiative the coalition seeks to build awareness of the important role of the arts in our communities.

"Community arts are a priority in our work towards racial justice in local schools and on a national level. Our art and story-telling projects are a relevant and tangible way to raise consciousness and empower students, families and teachers,” said Olivia Araiza, executive director of Justice Matters.

As part of The Time Is Now initiative, state-wide coalition partners are urging the U.S. Congress and State Legislature to support the following policies and priorities for education reform:
  • Strengthen schools through arts learning and arts-integrated education.
  • Develop balanced assessments that value individual student growth and account for the overall quality of the learning environment provided for each student.
  • Provide equitable funding and school improvement models that value innovation and quality.
  • Provide authentic, accessible opportunities for parent, student, and community engagement and input.
  • Support educator professional learning communities that continually strengthen teaching and learning.
Los Cenzontles is a grassroots artist-driven organization committed to amplifying the roots of Mexican culture through classes, events, media and performances. Founded in San Pablo, CA in 1994 by musician and educator Eugene Rodriguez, Los Cenzontles provides the local community with a family-friendly setting for traditional arts education and cultural events.

Friday, August 20, 2010

New Schott Foundation study reveals national failure to educate black males

"The 2010 Schott 50 State Report on Black Males in Public Education indicates that the overall 2007-2008 graduation rate for black males in the U.S. was 47 percent, with half of states having rates below this. The report highlights New Jersey's Abbott plan, whose targeted resources yielded significant results: New Jersey is now the only state with a high black population and a greater-than-65-percent graduation rate for black males. Currently, the five worst-performing districts with large black male student enrollment are New York City (28 percent); Philadelphia (28 percent); Broward County, Fla. (39 percent); Chicago (44 percent); and Nashville, Tenn. (47 percent)."

Monday, August 16, 2010

Stop SB1317: Proposed truancy law fines, jails California parents

Malaika Parker, Director of Community Action, uses her experience organizing parents through the R.E.A.L. Schools Now! Campaign in Richmond, CA to offer an analysis of the California Senate's chronic truancy legislation, SB1317:

Eighteen days and your parent can land in jail – what a message to send to the students in California elementary and middle schools. First we blamed students for the failings of public education and now, instead of California doing everything possible to make responsive, inclusive schools, SB1317 threatens to blame parents. Under this proposed legislation parents with children labeled chronically truant (18 or more unexcused days per school year) would either receive a fine, be remanded to jail or parenting classes for which the state has no money.

Consistently the response to the failures the public school system has been rooted in a desire to find the quick fix, instead of taking a deep look at what is happening in our schools. Our children are being warehoused, underserved, and over-tested. Children of color are being denied education that prepares them for their futures.

Families are told over and over again that they are not welcome as engaged, critical members of the school community. Instead of looking at the root of why our communities, families, and young people feel disengaged by schools SB1317 and much of the school reform discussion is focused on what parents need to do differently. This bill is a slippery slope toward teaching children that their parents are the barrier to success, education, and prosperity.

SB1317 is the personification of what many parents fear; that schools and the prison industrial complex are one in the same. Districts such as San Francisco boast that this method is the path toward improved student attendance, but at what cost? The price for these strategies is creating an environment of intimidation and disconnection.

Families have fought, demanded, and pleaded with California to do a better job at supporting students. They have been encouraged to wait, to be patient, and to allow their children’s education to be put at the bottom of the totem pole. I wonder what would happen if we moved towards engaging schools where parents are considered leaders, where students – all students – are considered scholars, and our communities are treated as assets to the learning process. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Privatization leads to money-chase, hurts students of color

In response to Sam Dillon's article published yesterday in the New York Times, Amina writes:

In spite of all stimulus money and all new policy plans, here we are, right back where we started; with the most underserved children receiving the very least. These children receive the least experienced teachers and administrators, now lets add the least experienced school turnaround advisors and managers to the mix. 

Yet, we shouldn’t be so surprised by this outcome. Given the overly simplistic turnaround policies and strategies being employed by this administration for bettering our most underserved schools, its no wonder every Tom, Dick and Harry organization has stepped up to give it the ole college try.

The idea is to learn the right lessons from the information we have at hand. The shortsighted response is to call for greater oversight in the selection and vetting of these turnaround advisor companies. That addresses the symptom. There arguably aren’t enough successful turnaround strategists to go around. The underlying problem is the less than thoughtful and holistic policy strategy for a series of deeply complex problems with poor students of color at the center. 

Communities for Excellent Public Schools reports that students of color represent from low-income communities represent 81% of these turnaround school students. Yet, the strategies we’ve devised to “help” them devalues that cultural and historical experience. In fact, quickie policies approaches may leave them prey to individuals and organizations seeking profit more than education transformation. We can do better. 

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Washington DC: Response to President Obama’s Address to the National Urban League

Reflecting on the Obama Administration's track record on race, Amina writes from Washington:

As President Obama addressed the National Urban League there was a feeling of disconnect on both sides. On one side a president who circumvents the importance of race. On the other side an audience whose organization is dedicated to “enabling African Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights.” You could almost feel the audience’s dilemma.

Torn. Feeling proud of the first Black president, yet skeptical at what that will mean for improving the lives of people of color; for our children in schools in particular.

Success in times of failure
“In a single generation America went from #1 to #12 in college completion rates,” said President Obama. Secretary Duncan also reflects with nostalgia on this time of American supremacy. 

During that ‘good’ time, students of color were floundering in college entrance and graduation rates. In 1990 black men and black women had graduation rates of 28% and 34% respectively.  For those of us seeking to improve the lives of students of color, the administration’s goal to return America to its #1 position sounds hollow.

Over and over we’ve declared national success while students of color continue in utter distress.  As the numbers of students of color grow you can see why we’d be skeptical about policies that promise ‘success’ without lending a critical eye to the needs and experiences of these students.

Civil what?
“This is the civil right issue of our time,” President Obama and Secretary Duncan are quick to declare, yet equally quick to dismiss in crafting public policy. Civil rights issues warrant civil right responses.

A competitive process for education funding through Race to the Top is hardly appropriate. If, in fact, the civil rights of some students are being persistently and systematically infringed upon, then we can’t craft policy proposals that designate certain ‘winning’ students as deserving and others as not.

As it stands at least 17 states (and the children they serve) will not win funding for their grant submissions proposals. Not to mention the states that didn’t bother applying. Ironically, President Obama may have said it best, “Words are easy, deeds are hard.”

To declare public education a civil rights issue is the right thing to do. Kudos to you, Mr. President. However, it’s much easier to say it, than to accept the full responsibility for what it means. It means that there are students in the system for whom vast systemic remedies are required, not won.

Is this public policy or public counseling?
Finally, the President’s speech included his usual refrain about parental responsibility. It’s the turn off the television, read to your kids, value teachers over sports stars refrain. All good points. But the persistent emphasis and spotlight on these points by President Obama lead me to question if the message matches the messenger.

What does it mean to have the President, the nation’s chief public policy officer over emphasize the private actions of parents in solving public policy problems? Sure, parents can and should do right by their children. But this personal responsibility refrain must follow a clear responsibility for what hasn’t, yet should, be done through public policy. Mr. Obama should be equally consistent in forcing the issues of zero tolerance policies, inequitable education funding structures, lacking services for English Language Learners. The list goes on and on. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

California reeling from Race to the Top's unintended consequences

Reflecting on John Fensterwald's spot-on analysis of California's on-going open enrollment mess, Jack writes:

As if parents didn’t have enough to look forward to in the coming school year, they now have another convoluted policy to contend with, sent from Sacramento with a shrug. Yet it’s unsurprising the state’s lawmakers failed to foresee the open enrollment mess as they scrambled in vain to secure Race to the Top funds in January. In the eleventh hour, with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, our legislators would have supported almost any bill with the words “accountability” and “choice” scattered through it. Therein lies the problem. 

As sloppy as Sen. Gloria Romero’s SBX5-4 has turned out to be, the true catalyst behind the resulting mess is not our state legislators, but really the Race to the Top initiative itself.  As schools with above average APIs of 800 are being classified as being among the state’s worst and high-performing principals and teachers are fired, we enter a strange, Ducanesque world of contradiction and paradox. Left is right, good is bad, and, most distressingly, success is failure.

There’s no other way of putting it: Race to the Top has hurt our schools. This high profile, high-stakes competition for cash left behind a legacy of incomplete state legislation across the country. It’s striking to think that with only 10% of the lowest performing schools being eligible for open enrollment, the remaining 90% will continue to struggle without a structural reform or funding increase in sight. Those hurt most will almost certain be those hurting now: low-income families of color.

Arne Duncan and the President have said time and again that this would be the true legacy of the initiative – convincing states to implement “groundbreaking reforms” through competition alone. The Federal government could turn around our nation’s struggling schools and improve student performance without articulating a clear policy vision, without bothering to really understand “what works,” and without spending more than a few billion dollars, nationwide.

That was the Race to the Top gimmick; California’s open enrollment debacle is the unacceptable result.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Justice Matters' First Washington DC Convening is a Great Success!

Washington DC: Stella reports on convening that engaged parents and educational professionals from around the country
On June 15th, Justice Matters' “Voices on the Ground: Connecting parents, students and activists to national education policy” brought together parents of color, community organizers and policy analysts to critically discuss the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA) also known as No Child Left Behind. The event was hosted at the National Education Association offices.

From the morning panel, to the work group meeting and finally at our Justice Matters’ Happy Hour at the local DC Busboys & Poets Café, community activists, policy professionals, parents and other education professionals met, networked, formed new relationships and strengthened old ones.

Community organizers, parents, policy analysts, and teachers came from around the country to participate:
Chicago, Illinois; Jackson, Mississippi; New York, NY; West Contra Costa County, CA; Washington DC; and Cambridge, MA.

One distinct message came through loud and clear: in order for public schools to become healthy, strong centers for all students we must connect community voice and racial justice to education policy and politics.

The DC convening was a first step in filling a huge void – the need for parents of color, policy analysts, and community organizers to come together and build a consensus on what our students need.

So stay tuned for more opportunities to work together in making racial justice and community engagement a reality in education policy.

And be sure to download a copy of our latest policy brief, Racial Justice and the Obama Administration’s Education Agenda on our blog that was presented at the DC convening. We welcome comments, ideas and thoughts on all our posts.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Download Our New Working Paper: "Racial Justice and the Obama Administration's Education Agenda"

With federal reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) approaching, Justice Matters employs a racial justice lens to evaluate the Obama Administration's public education agenda. The administration's plans, as demonstrated in A Blueprint for Reform, the 2011 fiscal year budget, and the Race to the Top initiative, maintain and even bolster some of the problematic elements in the current legislation, widely known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In Racial Justice and the Obama Administration's Education Agenda, Justice Matters examines how students of color will fare under the values and principles guiding the plans for reform. We take an in-depth look at approaches to parent and community engagement proposed by the administration and conclude with an outline for an alternative racial justice strategy.

Download the full paper at

Monday, June 7, 2010

Justice Matters Washington DC Convening: Voices on the Ground: Connecting parents, students and activists to national education policy

June 15th 10:00 am - 4:00 pm (ET)
National Education Association (NEA) Offices
1201 16th Street NW, Washington DC
To register visit:

We've been writing a lot about the reauthorization of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA) on this blog.
Now Justice Matters is hosting an exciting event on Tuesday, June 15th at the offices of the National Education Association in Washington DC. The convening is part of a Justice Matter effort to insert a racial justice analysis into the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). 
The Voices on the Ground event brings together community organizers and leading policy analysts from around the nation who will critically discuss ESEA. Panelists include:

Dr. John Jackson, President & CEO, The Schott Foundation
Veronica Rivera, Legislative Staff Attorney, Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund (MALDEF)
Robert Kim, Senior Policy Analyst, National Education Association (NEA)
Pamela Bachilla, Legislative Advocate, Alameda Alliance for Arts Learning Leadership
Arnol Amigo, Youth Leader and Henry Cervantes, Community Organizer, Telpochalli Community Education Project (Chicago, IL)
Betty Petty, Senior Organizer, Southern Echo, Inc. (Jackson, MS)
Carol Boyd, Parent Leader, NY Coalition for Educational Justice (New York,NY)
Bernadine Hammond, Parent Leader, REAL Schools Now! (Richmond, CA)

To learn more about the convening visit:

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Washington D.C. Dispatch: Senate Hearing Spotlights Homeless, Migrant, Foster and ESL students

Amina reports from Washington on today’s Senate Health Education Labor and Pension Hearing --homeless, migrant, foster and English as a Second Language students are the focus

Homeless Students: Good Law, Little Funding

Nationwide there are approximately 800,000 homeless children in public schools. Ms. Denise Ross of the Homeless Education Office of Prince George County Public Schools, MD is a fervent champion of the McKinney-Vento Act. The law has great aspects. It provides services and support to meet the needs of homeless children. Yet it remains underfunded. Only 9% of school districts receive McKinney-Vento funds! A well-to-do county like Prince George is able to step in where the federal government falls short, but what about the other school districts?

A System That Can’t See Immigrant Student Success

Mr. Michael Hinojosa, the Superintendent of Dallas Independent School District is an eye-opener on policies that miss the point in the real world. Many immigrant students are under-credited and over-aged. Language differences and other issues make them less likely to graduate in four years. Currently schools are judged on their four year graduation rates. As a result many immigrant graduates go unrecognized by the system. The system actually creates a disincentive to educate youth who need more than four years to graduate. It’s a classic case of a well-intended policy with unintended and negative real world implications.

The Amazing Ms. VanDyke

There was a ring of heart wrenching thoughtfulness in the air as Kayla Van Dyke addressed the senators. She’s a Minneapolis student with a lifetime of experience in homelessness and foster care and is now on her way to a four year college. The graduation rate for foster students hovers somewhere around 50%. Senators and the audience sat a little awestruck by this spectacularly thoughtful and confident senior. She explained how it was more than luck and talent that accounted for her ability to beat the odds. After a life in flux she found stability. A counselor to inform her of available services and to offer support during the difficult moves. A therapist to ensure that she dealt with emotional issues. Good foster parents who provided three years of stability and assisted her in catching up with her studies. These are real programs and they reap real benefits.

A Straight Shooter Senator

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) a former social worker pulled no punches. She stated at the outset “the foster care system is broken”, “we track terrorists, but have no way of keeping track of the well being of these children”. Whammo! “How do we attract teachers to a high needs school for special education facing all sorts of sanctions and mandates when they could just as easily go to highly resourced equally paid suburban school?” Whammo, again! She gets it-- the system makes no sense.

All in all, a good hearing on Capitol Hill today.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"Don't Take My Teacher" - Thousands of Students Stand up and Walk Out

Justice Matter’s executive director, Olivia Araiza, comments on New Jersey student walkout on Tuesday

On Tuesday, some 18,000 students in New Jersey walked out of classrooms protesting state-budget cuts in public schools with hand drawn signs reading “Don’t Take My Teacher” and “Dream Killers,” according to the New York Times. 

In Newark, where 70% of the public school students are students of color, they marched to City Hall protesting Republican Governor Christopher J. Christie’s budget cutbacks. The governor’s actions have pushed many districts to lay-off staff, increase classroom size, and cut after-school activities – unfortunately, nothing new for many school districts in this country. The National Education Association(NEA) already predicts that up to 200,000 teachers may lose their jobs this year.

What makes this statewide student walkout different is that it was organized on Facebook, by a student, in just a month – with a simple message and a call to action.  Students listened, organized, and walked out - Native Americans, Blacks, and Latinos from low-income school districts, the districts being hardest hit by the cutbacks.

Students of color are on the move and organizing. It’s about their futures, dreams, and hopes and they want to make sure their voice is heard. So the question is, are President Obama, Congress, and D.C. policy makers listening? We'll soon find out through the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Act (ESEA).

Through Justice Matters' Rethink Reclaim Rewrite Project, the Racial Justice Alternative to ESEA, we're measuring the policy agendas and politics surrounding the reauthorization of the law formerly known as No Child Left Behind. We are measuring the D.C. policies against racial justice and community values. The student walk out on Tuesday helps ensure we're on the right track - and should help ensure the country is on the right track, too.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Washington D.C. Dispatch: Too Big to Fail - Keep our Educators in the Classroom

Amina from the Capitol on Sen. Harkin's new bill

Three cheers for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Senate Education Committee! As states stimulus monies dry up and states are heading toward a funding cliff, a life preserver is tossed to educators. Sen. Harkins’ Keep Our Educators Working Act would extend stimulus funds by $23 billion for one year. Yes, this preserver is only temporary. But for tens of thousands of teachers awaiting pink slips—something is a whole lot better than nothing at all.
The National Education Association (NEA) is projecting over 150,000 educator layoffs in the next three months! The prospects are frightening. So, Sen. Harkin’s bill is a great start.

Let’s now push for some Wall Street bailout fortitude. A federal commitment to being there for public education. Why? Because it’s too big to fail. Because on the other end of those teacher lay-offs, school closures, stripped down school budgets are some of the nation’s most vulnerable children.

As nicely pointed out by the NEA, this approach is a far cry from the competitive roller coaster ride for Race to the Top Funds. Already the Department of Education is saying that only about 10 to 15 states may share in the remaining $3.4 billion that is estimated to be available. What happens to the rest of the states and the nation’s schools?

Unlike the Race to the Top game, Sen. Harkin’s bill would free already economically traumatized states from having to prove their worthiness for funding. They do not have to devise speedy plans and make unreasonable promises for cash. Instead, in these times of economic recession their worthiness is implied and understood. They are in crisis and their failure is inextricably linked to the well-being of the children they serve—many of whom are children of color; children whose futures are too important for them to fail.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Public Education as a Civil Right: Reauthorization Must Reflect ESEA's Original Purpose

Jack’s op-ed carried by the California Progress Report uncovers the original intent of ESEA/NCLB as enacted in 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and suggests that legacy be lived up to during the reauthorization process:

With the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) getting underway on Capitol Hill, a meaningful anniversary will pass unobserved in Washington. Forty-five years ago this Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson signed the act, rebranded by the Bush Administration as No Child Left Behind, into law. With the stroke of a pen, the federal government’s role in public education was revolutionized, placing emphasis on ensuring educational opportunity in low-income communities.

A Revolution in Education

The law came as a critical step in the Great Society legislation package designed to fight poverty and racism. For Johnson, who was trained as a schoolteacher and had taught in a poor Latino community in Texas, ESEA held as much potential for fighting racial injustice as the Civil Rights Act passed the previous year. With the federal government mandating desegregation, education commissioner Francis Keppel designed ESEA to ensure students of color were not just seated in classrooms, but that they also received a high quality education and had the real opportunity to continue to college.

In the decade following its inception, ESEA played an instrumental role in the desegregation process. Through Title I, the portion of the law providing funding for schools with large populations of low-income students, the Department of Education gave districts a strong incentive to follow through with desegregation promises. If they didn’t, they would miss out on federal dollars. At the same time, the policy also guaranteed resources for struggling schools when states and districts failed them, providing an essential boost for schools serving communities of color that had been neglected for years.

Legacy Lost?

Since becoming law, ESEA has been reauthorized by Congress about every five years. This process allows for policy modifications and improvements, as seen by the addition of funding provisions for English language learners and massive investments in educational innovation.

However, promises made during the reauthorization process have often fallen flat. For instance, in 2002 George W. Bush promised substantial increases in Title I funding for low-income schools. The money never materialized and to date the fund remains discretionary and not mandatory, leaving it susceptible to political horse-trading in the budget process.

With reauthorization three years overdue, the Obama Administration released its blueprint for education reform last month, outlining a model of improvement through increased competition and accountability. Federal spending on competitive grants is to be increased by $3 billion while the amount for formula grants, that is guaranteed money for struggling schools in poor communities, will be slightly reduced.

Title I funds, the federal government’s main tool for achieving equality in educational opportunity, will remain stagnant. With the four intervention models mandated for the nation’s lowest performing schools highly punitive, Title I schools should be given as many resources as possible to avoid becoming worst case scenarios.

Pitfalls and Potentials

In the race to win federal funding, the strongest competitors among states and school districts are those who can best demonstrate their proposed reforms will yield real results for their students. It stands to reason that those who can invest the most money and manpower into their proposals will have the best shot.

If states or districts are strapped for such resources or even if they are simply administered poorly, it seems logical that they will struggle to be competitive. In this way, schools that serve poor communities of color may end up at an automatic disadvantage when vying for federal money. The Department of Education must take this fact into account when it is evaluating funding applications or the strategy will simply intensify inequalities.

Over the year, Congress will set to work reauthorizing ESEA. Reauthorization necessarily involves the classic dance of interest politics – unleashing lobbyists and activists armed with slogans and statistics. In the midst of the clamor, it’s possible to be sidetrack and lose touch with what the legislation was actually intended to do: guarantee quality public education for poor students and students of color. Given its civil rights legacy, that goal is the heart and soul of this law and it must be boldly reaffirmed.


Monday, April 12, 2010

Guest Blogger: Susan Sandler writes about the mission of our nation's schools

What Starts with a “C” and Stands for Building A Healthy, Just, and Caring World?
by Susan Sandler

OK, it doesn’t really have to start with a C.  But we do need another word to go along with “college” and “career” in the goals for schools set out in the Obama administration’s Blueprint for Reform (

By stating that schools should prepare students to be college and career ready, the administration is “engaged in a historic effort” to change the country’s paradigm for schools  (  The Obama administration is saying that we have to dramatically raise our expectations for what schools should be doing.

If we’re going to change our paradigm for schools, let’s really change it.  Let’s put out a full vision for what our schools should be and do.  While college and careers definitely have a place in a vision for schooling (and perhaps another posting could unpack these ideas from a racial justice perspective), they do not cover the full picture of what education should do.

Socially Responsible Public Schools  

Yes, our schools should prepare individual students for college and fulfilling work that allows them to care for their families.  Yes, they should enable a thriving  economy.  But we also need our schools to be places where students learn to build a healthy, just, and caring world.  As Justice Matters’ Executive Director Olivia Araiza says, our schools should be creating “leaders, solution-builders, peace-fighters, and lifelong learners.”

If our schools were fully accomplishing this part of their mission today, maybe the financial sector would be run on a different model that would not have led us into economic crisis.  And maybe each neighborhood would have more community leaders and solutions to survive this crisis as it hit us on the local level.  And if students learned in school that they are citizens of the world; not just the U.S., and that this includes learning about the histories and cultures of ALL nations and not just European ones, perhaps our foreign policy could begin to reflect a more intelligent policy built on human rights and knowledge.

Racial Justice and Public Education

How is expanding the paradigm for schools in this way a racial justice issue?  Of course, building a healthy, just, and caring world is something we need based on many perspectives and values.  But we need it from a racial justice perspective for a couple of reasons:

  1. Communities of color, as a group that faces systemic oppression, have an urgent need for a more healthy, just, and caring world.  As studies have shown, people of color bear disproportionate harm from societal practices that are unhealthy, unjust, and uncaring.  Whether the problem is an out-of-control criminal justice system (, predatory and unfair lending practices (, access to healthy food ( ), or almost any other problem affecting our society as a whole, communities of color are disproportionately impacted.

  1. Many students of color come to school with personal experiences of an unhealthy, unjust, and uncaring world: too often, they have been on the front lines of unequal access to health care; they know what neglected, crumbling neighborhood looks like; they have seen the effects of toxic dumping; they have been in the offices of unresponsive institutions that have treated family members disrespectfully.  When schools take on the mission of changing that, their relevance and connection increases dramatically for these students.

So, please let me know if you think of a third word for the mission of our country’s schools!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Washington D.C. Dispatch: Zero Tolerance Policies Hurt Students of Color

Amina from the Capitol on NYU's Pedro Noguera, the school to prison pipeline, and the future of discipline policies in the nation's public schools:

They Came to Capitol Hill

On Capitol Hill New York University’s Pedro Noguera implores lawmakers to recognize that zero tolerance policies disproportionately punish the kids that have the highest needs.  Noguera, Monty Neill from Fair Test, Jim Freeman from the Advancement Project and Eric Yates student organizer from the Philadelphia Student Union issued a clarion call to address the issue. The school to prison pipeline is not a policy footnote. In fact, for students of color in particular it may be the golden key to help unlock the mysteries of the drop out plague.

Duncan Disses Discipline

Did you know that in Chicago Public Schools, under the leadership of then Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan, the number of out-of-school suspensions district wide nearly quadrupled over six years? I guess its no surprise zero tolerance policies aren’t at the top of Duncan’s “things to do” list. The Advancement Project’s 2010 release of Test, Punish, and Push Out reports this and other stunning results from zero tolerance policies now employed in schools across the nation.  The report screams that we can’t afford to overlook this issue.

Race Doesn’t What?!

Did you know that since NCLB’s passage nationwide expulsion numbers have gone up some 15%? More tellingly, the numbers of expulsions for Black students has risen 33% and 6% for Latino students, yet FALLEN 2% for white students! Does race still matter? Clearly, in the world of school discipline it does. This inconvenient truth flies in the face of a country wishing for a post-racial gold star—but we simply aren’t there yet. 

Connect the Dots

Discipline is a line that connects many education outcome dots. Suspended, expelled and needlessly arrested kids are kids that aren’t learning.  Kids that fall behind academically tend to be kids that don’t feel welcome in schools. Kids that don’t feel welcome in school tend to drop out and are at an increased risk to be placed in the criminal justice system. No matter how convenient separating these issues may be for policy expedience, it doesn’t erase the reality. Let’s connect some dots folks and learn from what we see.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Meaningful Parent Involvement Measures Missing from Obama's Blueprint

Jack's op-ed carried by New America Media responds to the Administration's plans (or lack thereof) to reform the school-parent relationship in K-12 education:

When then-Sen. Barack Obama was campaigning in Chicago in June 2008, he chided black fathers for not taking an active interest in their children’s lives. “Yes, we need more money for our schools, and more outstanding teachers in the classroom, and more afterschool programs for our children,” he told a church congregation. “But we also need families to raise our children.”

Whether he was speaking the truth or talking down to families of color, it seemed clear that candidate Obama passionately believed that parents should play a critical role in a child’s success. On this at least, he was right. Study after study has confirmed that parent involvement—from helping with homework to volunteering–helps students succeed in school.

Rhetoric vs. Reality

Yet Obama’s fiery campaign rhetoric is vastly different from the president’s new plans for public education reform when it comes to parent engagement. Last month, the federal Department of Education released its proposal for renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as No Child Left Behind. It proposes changes to teacher accountability, student evaluation and school administration, but says virtually nothing about engaging parents.

In fact, the president’s 2011 fiscal year budget actually eliminates funding for the 62 Parent Information and Resources Centers that have coordinated parent involvement programs across the country for the past eight years. Instead, the proposal would expand two initiatives—Promise Neighborhoods and 21st Century Learning Centers—with $1.4 billion.

But those initiatives do not specifically focus on parent involvement. The bulk of that money will go to competitive grants that can be won by states, school districts, and community-based organizations that establish a wide variety of programming to improve student achievement and expand the school day. Engaging parents in such programs is suggested, but not explicitly required.

No Guaranteed Support

More money for community-oriented programs might be good thing. However, with such funding taking the form of competitive grants, there’s no guarantee that schools serving poor students and communities of color will get the special resources they need to implement effective parent involvement strategies.

For example, some parents feel intimated by the background checks and fingerprinting process required by many volunteering programs. Other parents have difficulty communicating with teachers and counselors when no interpreters are available. But there’s no proposal on the table to require states and school districts to knock down such bureaucratic barriers or to encourage parent participation in school decision-making processes.

Perhaps education officials think that federal involvement in matters of parental engagement has been so ineffective in the past that it’s not worth trying again.  To some extent, they’re right. Parent involvement policies have been both poorly funded and inconsistently implemented. The administration’s proposals don’t address these shortcomings. Instead, they would introduce third party organizations into the relationship between schools and parents, complicating not simplifying it.

Parents as a Solution

Robust parental involvement also aids in the other issues of concern for education reform. It could help hold teachers and administrators accountable, improving the effectiveness of their work and student outcomes. If parents are well informed and involved, they could tell when a school is struggling and help to turn it around before worst-case scenarios unfold. Greater parent involvement means more hands to help when faculties are overwhelmed. As Howard Blume reports in The Los Angeles Times, the faculty-run Jefferson High School in South L.A. recently established policies that involve parents in discipline matters and allow them to sit-in on classes. The school is still struggling, but it’s beginning to see results.

Active parents are the missing factors in the public education equation. Their involvement should be an active right and not a passive privilege. Parents and families can reinforce what’s learned in the classroom and bring a wealth of knowledge into the school community.

With the administration making federal funding competitive to foster innovation, why not reward states and districts that make groundbreaking efforts to engage and include parents? After all, if parents want to do their part to ensure their children’s success then, as candidate Obama said in Chicago almost two years ago, “our government should meet them halfway.”

Monday, March 29, 2010

Washington D.C.: JM's Recommendations to the House Committee on Education & Labor

Dear Chairman Miller, Ranking Member Kline and Members of the Committee on Education and Labor:

Justice Matters appreciates the opportunity to respond to the committee’s request for comments on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  The reauthorization process and outcome offer an historic opportunity to rethink the nation’s approach to public education, reclaim the purpose of the ESEA as a tool to ensure the rights of students persistently disserved by our nation’s public education system and rewrite the legislation to best meets those ends.

Justice Matters is a non-profit organization dedicated to the development, promotion and support of education policy rooted in community vision. We firmly believe that a transformed public education system must include racial justice for students of color; a growing yet consistently disenfranchised group in public education. Our analysis and recommendations will focus on identifying substantive means to meet these ends.

As the reauthorization of ESEA moves forward Justice Matters will judge and recommend policies based on the following core set of values:
  • Commitment to the development of the full human and communal potential of all students, with a distinct commitment to students of color.
  • Embracing what low-income students of color specifically bring to school – their culture, language, families and ways of being and knowing in the world. 
  • Commitment to preparing low-income students of color for meaningful work, to care for their families emotionally and financially to participate in building a more just society.  
     A New Path

In the past the power of federal education policy has been neutralized in the face of entrenched disparities in resources and achievement between students of color and their white counterparts. We need a completely new approach.

Parent and Community Engagement

Bridging the divide between the schools serving students of color and the communities in which these students reside is crucial for the development and implementation of effective school, district and state policy. Parents, caregivers, community activists, and the like provide invaluable perspective and information on the unique issues their community’s children face and on more effective strategies to value their children’s experiences and promote their children’s potential. Normally, federal policy considers provision of services to parents; including literacy, child development, etc. We encourage the expansion of these important efforts. However, these policies must be partnered with meaningful ways to empower parents and community members and include them in the governance of their local schools.  Too often such attempts lack funding, specificity and rigor, resulting in ineffective programs. We can do better.

Neither the Obama Administration’s budget proposal nor its blueprint indicate a specific requirement for parent and community engagement in school governance. Moreover, all signs point to a rollback on current requirements for Parent Information and Resource Centers (PIRCs) , parental sign-off on district budget proposals and provisions of programming to build parent capacity for school involvement. These policies were never fully funded and lacked clarity in their mandate.

We recommend:      
  • Explicitly outline a plan for parental and community engagement that results in a mandated infrastructure at the school, district and state level. The efforts should work to engage communities and parents with thought toward language and culture, disability and socio-economic status. This program could begin anew or work to expand, fully fund, strengthen and provide clarity to the existing PIRCs. We understand the current system is flawed, however, the need for meaningful parental and community engagement persists.
  • Retain requirements for parents to sign-off on district budgets.
  • Ensure parental and community involvement programs are fully funded. For example, PIRCs have not been fully funded.
  • Provide incentives for schools and districts to partner with community-based organizations to develop and implement plans to empower parents and fully them and community members in school governance and school daily practices.
  • Fully implement an accountability system to ensure that schools, districts and states comply with parent and community engagement funding requirements and participation guidelines. 
The Blueprint

As the Obama Administration’s Blueprint for Reform promises to guide subsequent discussions on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act we recommend that the following be taken into account in legislative discussions and policy development:

Provide greater flexibility in the means for school turnaround.  Schools at the bottom 5% often face a cross cutting set of complex issues. The solution for turning around such a school likely require strategies that reach beyond the four prescribed by the blueprint. Turnaround strategies should promote flexibility and encourage techniques that make student, teacher, parent and other community voices central in devising non-traditional and locally based strategies.

Explicit and substantive inclusion of parents in turnaround school decisions. Too often parents are the last to learn about plans for school closure, charter conversion, or major restructuring.  The blueprint indicates that the selected strategy should be locally decided, however, it is silent on which local voices must be included in the decision making process.

Rethink our approach to our most difficult schools. The blueprint promotes a model that advantages schools with greater means while disadvantaging schools with the greatest struggles, where many students of color are located. Although the more successful schools will find relief from punitive No Child Left Behind (NCLB) practices, and win the right to innovate. While for the lowest rung schools, the NCLB world will persist. Although the requirement will have changed from Adequate Yearly Progress to Career and College Readiness, and from achievement to growth, the pressure will persist to teach to the test.

Explicitly Address Push-out Forces in Schools. The startlingly high drop-out rate among students of color demonstrates a need for extraordinary effort in determining its cause and developing solutions. Current proposals, the blueprint and discussion have ignored the devastating contribution zero tolerance and other harsh disciplinary policies have made toward low graduation rates and conversely high incarceration rates among students of color. Study after study shows stunning racial disparities in how these policies are enforced. Collection of data indicated in the blueprint is a start. However, schools and districts should be forced to review their discipline policies and draw on healthier and more effective approaches to improve school climate.

Promote racial and ethnic diversity among teachers. The administration recognizes the importance of teachers in creating healthy learning environments. However, it has failed to recognize the importance of greater racial and ethnic diversity among them. Beyond racial and ethnic diversity, we must promote teachers recruited from the communities they will serve.

Greater requirements for equity. As written, the blueprint offers strong ideas on the need for greater resource yet the language is soft. ‘Over time’, districts will be required to ensure their high poverty schools receive equitable state and local funding. States will be ‘asked’ to develop a plan to tackle resource disparities. Resource equity is a central problem in public education. States and districts will require mandates and timetables to ensure success.

It may all come down to values.
What may be most troubling and most difficult to pinpoint and illustrate is the lack of core values in the blueprint and in education reform discussions thus far. We have lacked a national discussion of the core values upon which a transformed educational system should be based. In its place we’ve based reform almost entirely on economic necessity and dropped the civil rights legacy upon which the ESEA is based. We’ve infused competition into government funding ensuring that some students will end up losing the competitive grant game. Through No Child Left Behind we’ve learned of the glaring disparity between students of color and their white counterparts, yet we continue to explicitly recognize this reality and create public policy accordingly. We continue to place race neutral policy solutions on problems steeped in race. Until we can have these frank and open discussions we may be faced with revisiting these same issues on the next round of ESEA reauthorization.


Justice Matters