When the new Congress begins to consider the federal government’s role in America’s classrooms, civil rights groups will be doing their best to advocate for the strength of that role to ensure mandates that purport to promote “equity” for “diverse” groups. However, in October of last year, these same groups referred to the standardized testing requirements of the same federal government as “overly punitive” of racial minorities.
Politico’s recent overview of the upcoming debate in Congress concerning the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), referred to the fears of civil rights groups that Republican leaders will “strip the federal role out of education.”
Politico aptly points out the conundrum for these groups in that the standardized testing requirement of NCLB – one of “the most hated parts of the bill” – is tangled up with its civil rights provisions:
…The testing requirements, for example, allowed the government for the first time to spotlight the achievement gaps between white students from higher-income families and their peers when those test results were broken down by race and socioeconomic status. NCLB put a public spotlight on schools and districts that were falling flat when it comes to helping disadvantaged students — and pressed them to improve when no one else would.
Taken aback, however, by the recent loud protests against the Common Core standards’ further entangling of the federal government in education and the fact that a lesser federal role could affect their causes, these same groups, according to Politico, “fear Congress will strip core provisions of the law but hope that the national conversation about race sparked by recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City will help keep a spotlight on civil rights.”
At the end of October, in fact, 11 national civil rights groups wrote to President Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and members of Congress to recommend their version of a federal education system redo that would ensure equity for racial minorities.
The Washington Post provided the letter, which began:
On behalf of millions of students and families, and civil rights organizations, communities of color, and organizations that reflect the new, diverse majority in public education, we write urging implementation of a set of strong recommendations for advancing opportunity and supporting school integration, equity, and improved accountability within our nation’s systems of public education.
The civil rights groups say they believe accountability “at the local, state, and federal levels are central to advancing and broadening equal educational opportunity for each and every child in America.”
“From early education to the post-secondary years, we believe that the federal government continues to play a critical role in helping states, districts, and tribes to achieve educational excellence through equity,” the groups write.
They assert, however, their concerns “about overly punitive accountability systems:”
In particular, the No Child Left Behind law has not accomplished its intended goals of substantially expanding educational equity or significantly improving educational outcomes. Racial achievement and opportunity gaps remain large, and many struggling school systems have made little progress under rules that emphasize testing without investing.  We must shift towards accountability strategies that promote equity and strengthen, rather than weaken, schools in our communities, so that they can better serve students and accelerate student success.
Though billions of federal tax dollars have been poured into the nation’s public schools for the purpose of closing the “achievement gap,” with little to show for it, the civil rights groups recommend, in order to “prioritize racial diversity and integration of schools,” more funding, instructional materials, “access to technology,” and facilities “based on student needs.”
The groups asked Obama and Duncan for “equitable access, within and across schools, to high-quality curricula, tools for learning, and enrichment programs,” special services that allow students’ “cultural and linguistic assets” to be considered.
Additionally, the groups desire “qualified, certified, competent, racially and culturally diverse and committed teachers, principals, counselors, nurses, librarians, and other school support staff,” and further “social, emotional, nutritional, and health services.”
Student assessment of college and career readiness, however, according to the civil rights groups, should take into account whether the school provided sufficient “academic, social, emotional, physical health, and cultural well-being,” as well as “school discipline and positive school climate.”
“Assessments should be valid for the students and purposes for which they are used …. Measures should also be used to assess whether individual and collective education systems are moving toward meeting objectives related to greater equity in educational opportunities and achievement,” the authors write.
The letter’s signatories are: Advancement Project, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Opportunity to Learn (OTL) Campaign, National Urban League (NUL), NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), National Council on Educating Black Children (NCEBC), National Indian Education Association (NIEA) and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC).
Politico notes a hefty federal role in education is essential for the civil rights cause, and that the federal government’s data collection made public “can shame schools into doing better” for racial minorities.
Regarding NCLB, Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told Politico, “We see this as a civil rights bill.”
“I am hard pressed to understand how you give states federal money with no strings attached,” she added.
Also in October, Zirkin’s Leadership Conference sent a letter to Duncan complaining about the ease with which the Obama administration was renewing waivers from NCLB’s requirements to states as part of the deal for adopting the Common Core standards:
The Leadership Conference urges you to maintain accountability for subgroups and to hold states to rigorous standards for waivers that include evidence that they will narrow achievement gaps and improve graduation rates of students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners.
Citing Brown v. Board of Education, the Conference demonstrates why it insists on strong federal involvement in education.
“[E]ven though the past two ESEA reauthorizations prodded states and local education agencies (LEAs) to close gaps in achievement and high school completion,” the Conference states, “far too many recipients of federal education funds continue to drag their feet on making the improvements and investments needed to realize the promise of Brown to all our children.”