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.”