The False Promise of Color-Blind & Disability-Free Education Reform

13 Jan in
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By Ernest Saadiq Morris, Urban Youth Justice

Ernest Saadiq Morris is a youth rights advocate, civil rights & liberties lawyer, and founding director of the public education and advocacy initiative, Urban Youth Justice. You can follow Urban Youth Justice daily on Facebook and Twitter.

The public debate over education reform reached a crescendo in 2010. This debate was dominated by a media-celebrated corporate education-reformer class consisting predominately of white male alumni of privileged secondary schools and universities. Their brand of education reform is focused on high stakes, standardized tests and the promotion of private charter schools. After all, their background of cultural and educational experiences is most favored by the standardized tests upon which these same privileged academic institutions placed a high premium. It is what they know, but it is the wrong prescription for those urban youth of color most at risk of harm from failed public education experiments.

It is well-documented that there is an academic achievement gap for black males (and other youth of color) as evidenced by lower standardized test scores and graduation rates. Factors such as the proliferation of zero tolerance discipline policies, high stakes standardized testing, disproportionate special education placement, and unequal school funding have discriminatory impacts upon urban youth of color and youth with disabilities and perpetuate educational inequities.

Furthermore, in our nation’s largest urban school districts poverty tracks race. Yet in How to Fix our Schools: A Manifesto," the celebrities of urban corporate education reform, including Michelle Rhee (D.C.), Joel Klein (New York City) and Paul Vallas (New Orleans), loftily declared

“The single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income -- it is the quality of their teacher.”

Then they set forth how standardized testing and the proliferation of charters are the magic cure-all to improve student and teacher performance, as well as the education system overall.

The fact that sixteen urban school district chiefs refused to address poverty, race, or disability inequities as integral to their education reform manifesto is a heinous omission.

As a result of this blind-eye approach, many youth of color will not have access to a reform agenda, an agenda concentrated in charter schools. Worse, the proliferation of charters undermines their right to equal educational opportunity by taking from limited public funds while serving a smaller, less diverse student population than truly public schools. This issue arose recently when the Los Angeles Unified School District was literally forced to give local charter schools a larger cut of its special education budget because they would lose even more funds if charter schools carried out their threat to contract out special education services for which they currently pay the District. As a result of this compromise deal, the District's traditional public schools will receive less money while continuing to serve more special education students. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times noted that the Unified District's numbers show that about 12% of students district-wide are classified as special needs, yet charter schools only offer special education services to about 6% of their students.

The chronic underserving, or outright exclusion, of special needs youth by charters claiming they are not equipped to handle their needs is a persistent national problem. In October 2010, the special education inequities were so dire in New Orleans that the Southern Poverty Law Center and other advocacy groups filed a lawsuit contending that due to widespread discrimination students with special needs were denied an appropriate education by the majority-charter school New Orleans Recovery School District either denying their enrollment due to their disability or forcing them to attend schools ill-equipped to accommodate their disabilities.

In an ongoing Philadelphia area lawsuit, Bluntetal v. Lower Merion Schoo lDistrict, parents of African-American students say they were systematically denied an education equal of their white classmates due to disproportionate special education placement and lower level curriculum tracking of black students.

Likewise, high stakes standardized testing has a disproportionately negative effect on Black and Latino students, as well as special needs youth. In 2010, the Advancement Project’s report Test, Punish, and Push Out: How Zero Tolerance and High Stakes Testing Funnel Youth into the School to Prison Pipeline"examined how high stakes standardized testing works with zero tolerance discipline policies to push out youth of color, especially those from a low income background.

“[T]oo many children continue to be labeled academic failures even though they are making progress. These students are shamed by their peers, their teachers, and their communities because of the impact, their test results can have on school assessment

Additionally, the results from standardized tests are often used to retain students in grade. Yet grade retention has been shown to be the single largest predictor of student dropout. Unless accompanied by targeted and intensive supports and interventions, student retention fails to produce academic gains for the retained students and makes it more likely that the students will experience future behavioral problems.”

High stakes testing does not address or alleviate academic achievement disparity; rather it stigmatizes it and eventually leads to high pushout/dropout rates. Thereby high stakes testing perpetuates the achievement gap stigma of youth of color and exacerbates their educational disenfranchisement, instead of alleviating it through academic interventions and supports. Once driven to drop out these youth of color and youth with disabilities officially became part of a growing invisible class.

Color-blind and disability-free public education reform is a dangerously exclusionary vision of public education in the image of the elitist academic and cultural backgrounds of the corporate education-reformer class. Equal educational opportunity is a fundamental right of all youth, and its systematic denial is no less than a crime--especially given the historical educational inequities of youth of color and youth with disabilities. Attrition by pushout or dropout of our most at risk youth is merely a continuation of the unacceptable status quo. We cannot justify the redirecting of limited public funds to private hands nor the resulting undermining of every student’s sacred right to equal educational opportunity. The current celebrity reform agenda represents an illusion of progress and false promise of reform. Good intentions are not an excuse.