DSC Engages Secretary Arne Duncan at ABA Event
By: Rosa K. Hirji
Some 36 students, parents and advocates from the Dignity in Schools Campaign packed the halls of Congress last week to support alternatives to zero tolerance in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act. And others attended an American Bar Association (ABA) event in Chicago on October 2, 2010 to engage Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Russlyn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights for the Department of Education. Both policy-makers took time that day to address the issues we raised this past summer.
In his address before the ABA, Secretary Duncan reiterated his belief that education is the civil rights issue of our time, citing segregated schools, funding inequities, and disproportionate application of discipline on students of color. According to Duncan, the best anti-poverty program is a quality education. How to achieve that goal? He said the best way is to incentivize reform, provide for a well rounded curriculum and access to good school options for parents in poor communities, and have a student-result based system of determining who is a highly effective teacher. In other words, the Secretary was encapsulating the education platform of the Obama administration: competitive grants, national standards, charter schools, and merit pay.
In our questions to Duncan, we reminded him of the role zero tolerance laws played in creating a “zero tolerance mentality” in schools across the country that results in the skyrocketing number of school suspensions and expulsions. We reminded him of the 2001 ABA resolution against zero tolerance. We stated that a suspension rate of African Americans that is three times the rate for other youth was unacceptable. We asked him directly, what he was going to do to address this in the reauthorization of the ESEA, and how he was going to promote alternatives such as Positive Behavior and Intervention Supports (PBIS), and restorative practices.
Secretary Duncan responded by affirming that the problem does exist. He talked about a study that was done while he was CEO of Chicago Public Schools indicating that 58 percent of school based arrests came from 8 percent of the city’s schools. Duncan said he’s a “big fan” of peer juries and PBIS, and that these must be addressed in teacher training.
Assistant Secretary Ali responded to our questions in more detail. She discussed the new expanded civil rights data collection of 7,000 school districts, now to include all schools that enroll more than 3,000 students. In particular, the office will collect data related to arrest rates on schools, and suspensions under zero tolerance policies. She confirmed that the administration and her office are looking for ways to promote and include PBIS and restorative practices in the ESEA. They’re specifically looking at the zero tolerance provisions in ESEA. In addition, she spoke about an increased emphasis on the enforcement of Title VI discrimination complaints.
In our question to Secretary Duncan, we also made an important reference to the connection between school accountability reforms, school suspension and expulsion rates. This point was unanswered by both Duncan and Ali. We know the rise in schools suspensions, expulsions, and arrests coincided with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and other similar reform measures. Schools consumed with meeting accountability measures have little resources and time to develop positive school climates and implement alternatives to zero tolerance. Instead, they resort to reactive discipline and a reliance on police personnel to maintain control.
After a long struggle by DSC and our partners, policy-makers are starting to recognize that disproportionate school discipline and high arrest rates are not acceptable, and they are becoming more open to incorporating alternatives to zero tolerance such as restorative practices and PBIS. Yet, by perpetuating reforms that defund public education, promote charter schools that have incentives to pushout or keep out underperforming students, and forcing competitive and accountability models, any “reforms” of school discipline will be crumbs on the table.
In the long run, what matters most is whether our school system is organized to educate all children and in particular the neediest, not just those who attend schools and states that are “winners” according to the federal government.
Read the speech transcript or view photos here.