If Education is a Civil Rights Issue

I have often heard educators, policymakers, philanthropists, and politicians from both parties refer to education as the “civil rights issue of our time.”  I confess that I do not fully understand what this means. 

What do they mean when they say “education”?  Is it equal access to education or better quality or both or neither?  What about access to racially and socioeconomically integrated schools (as plaintiffs in Brown vs. Board of Education sought)?  And what do they mean when they say “civil rights”?  Does advocating for civil rights in education extend to issues like an end to mass incarceration, housing segregation, and voting ID laws?  Can these issues reasonably be separated?  Should they be?  And finally, what does it mean to highlight an “issue,” as opposed, say, to a struggle.  To call for action would demand greater precision of language:  articulating just what the problem is, how it is connected to civil rights, and why one solution over another is more likely to increase the civil rights of disempowered people.   

I have been asking myself versions of these questions ever since I received the latest issue of Educational Researcher in the mail last month.  In it, Gary Orfield, esteemed professor at UCLA and founder of the Civil Rights Project, observes that education policy has been gradually but unmistakably decoupled from civil rights policy, beginning almost as soon as they were joined 60 years ago.  “The last major civil rights law was enacted 55 years ago,” he writes, “[and] the first major decision limiting desegregation came 51 years ago.”  The erosion has not stopped since, he argues.

In place of policies that took direct aim at racism and poverty – such as school desegregation and affirmative action programs, both of which showed promise in increasing the educational opportunities of marginalized people before being curbed or shut down by legislatures and courts – policies developed over the last few decades (like higher standards, test-based accountability, teacher performance pay, and school choice) have been steadfastly color-blind.  That is, they are designed to apply as broadly and indiscriminately as possible in the name of positively impacting the most number of students.  The policies are built on the determined belief that poor children can achieve at the same high levels as wealthy children provided that they have good teachers in good schools.  This philosophy is framed not in a punitive way, but in a way that emphasizes our collective belief in all children’s potential regardless of their circumstances.  I can see why it is so easy to build consensus (and policies) around philosophies like this.

There is an almost elegant simplicity to color-blind policies.  To quote Chief Justice John Roberts from his majority opinion in Parents Involved (2007), a case in which the Court struck down voluntary school desegregation plans that used race as one of many factors:  “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”  Moreover, to believe that one’s demographics – race, first language, parents’ education, zip code – do not determine one’s success in school and life is emblematic of the American Dream that tells children they can be whatever they want to be so long as they work hard.  In other words, our failure to achieve educational equity is largely a matter of will.  If we – researchers, teachers, students, policymakers – just buckled down and worked harder, we could overcome our history.  Consider how Angela Duckworth’s high-profile research is used to diagnose and boost students’ “grit.” 

But we cannot overcome our history by ignoring it, and that is precisely what color-blind education policy (maybe unintentionally) does.  As important as character strengths like grit are for success in school and life – strengths that I want my own daughter to have – they cannot by themselves overcome the systematic disadvantages facing large numbers of students and families in this country.  P.L. Thomas, a former high school teacher and now associate professor of education, puts grit in context.  If education, he writes, were a 100-yard sprint, it would most assuredly not be a fair race:

Children in poverty line up at the starting line with a bear trap on one leg; middle-class children start at the 20-, 30-, and 40-meter marks; and the affluent stand at the 70-, 80-, and 90-meter marks. And …[we] shout to the children in poverty: “Run twice as fast! Ignore the bear trap! And if you have real grit, gnaw off your foot, and run twice as fast with one leg!”

Achievement, then, is not only a matter of working hard.  In the education race, those children with more advantages – say, by virtue of their family income or where they live, both of which are correlated with race – have more margin for error.  They have the privilege of being able to fail and make mistakes and try less hard while still crossing the finish line.  Given this uneven terrain, we need to be more precise when we talk about civil rights in education.  If education is a civil rights issue and if one’s civil rights includes education, then education policy must also include policies to reduce inequality and end poverty. 

At the risk of fanning the flames of an already hot education policy debate, let’s consider one popular lever believed to improve educational opportunities and outcomes and how it could be made more in line with these civil rights goals:  charter schools.  Like district schools, charter schools are hardly monolithic, but the outcome of greatest interest among boosters and critics alike is achievement:  test scores, graduation rates, college acceptance.  So let’s assume that I’m talking about only the best charter schools on these measures.  Are they tackling inequality as well as achievement?  Should they?

I believe they can and should.

Because most charter schools are able to enroll students across district boundaries, they represent a unique opportunity to transcend the barrier to integration posed by intense and enduring housing segregation.  However, without civil rights protections also built into charter laws, this opportunity has been unrealized.  Civil rights protections today might echo ones developed in response to 1960s-era choice plans – requirements, Orfield wrote, “that all families be informed of choice alternatives and given forms to make a choice, that good information be provided, that the choices be honored without conditions or screening, that no transfers increased segregation, and that free transportation be provided.”  In addition, all families within a district or cachement area could be automatically enrolled in all charter school lotteries as a way to ensure that schools represent the racial and socioeconomic diversity of their communities.  Similarly, like district schools, charter school seats that are vacated would be “backfilled” from their waiting lists as a way to guard against “creaming” – the sometimes-tacit practice of counseling out higher-risk or lower-achieving students.

Requirements such as these seem important if charter schools are going to realize their equalizing potential, since it appears that segregation is exacerbated in charter schools.  An analysis comparing enrollment patterns in charter and district schools found that “charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation.”  In 2010 in New York City, 90 percent of its charter schools were “intensely segregated,” making them even more segregated by race than its highly-segregated district schools.

If education is a civil rights issue, then schools and school systems and the people who run schools and school systems cannot work around rising racial and economic segregation.  Rather than being escape routes out of poverty, schools should be engines of social transformation.  Jeff Duncan-Andrade, an associate professor at San Francisco State University and Oakland Public School teacher for over 20 years, told a gathering of Louisiana educators last year that “[t]he purpose of education is not to escape poverty; the purpose of education is to end it.” 

I believe that charter schools can and should be a part of this movement and that critical civil rights protections like those mentioned above will help ensure a more equal playing field.  To do this, schools must be focused not just on the transformation of their students but also on the transformation of the unjust world in which students live.  And so, until broad civil rights protections are in place, I will place my faith in individuals and institutions dedicated to enacting models of schools as community-minded, justice-oriented laboratories.  For example, next year Duncan-Andrade and his colleagues will be opening their own charter school in Oakland, based on a Maori philosophy of schools-as-family and providing community-based wraparound services and serving as an apprentice program for new Oakland teachers.  Similarly, I am heartened by student movements in Tuscon and suburban Jefferson County, Colorado, both of which to varying degrees urged school leaders to teach an honest reckoning of our often-painful shared history as a way to help overturn it.

Given all of this – our past, our present, our future – I have to conclude that education is not the greatest civil rights issue of our time.  Rather, the steady erosion of civil rights – including those rights guaranteeing equal access to educational opportunity – is the greatest civil rights issue of our time.  In the ongoing struggle for civil rights, schools have both a role to play and rewards to reap, but they cannot do it alone or in isolation.