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.

Sincerely,

Justice Matters 

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