We should never waver from an opportunity to do what’s best for kids

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

It’s become pretty commonplace to bash the federal government’s role in education. Barely a day goes by without someone taking a jab at the Feds, attacking federal education policy and calling for more local control. When I hear those attacks, I remember Lynn.

I met Lynn in the hills of Western Pennsylvania. I’d come to her community to serve as a Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA). I had no idea what I was getting into. The community was a dumping ground for tens of thousands of former residents of shuttered “mental” institutions. Like Lynn, most were in their fifties and sixties and had never learned to read or even write their name. They were desperate for help from anyone in the outside world. Unfortunately for them, their needs far exceeded the limited capacity of a 23-year-old idealist with a bachelor’s degree in government. I couldn’t imagine how they could have ended up like this.

Ten years later, I found the answer to my question in a graduate school lecture on the history of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Our professor began with a short 1972 film by an investigative reporter named Geraldo Rivera (yes, that Geraldo) about the Willowbrook school. The images were grotesque and unforgettable: naked men, women, and children with disabilities packed in rooms in horrific conditions. Most of them had “intellectual disabilities” and many had been taken from their families at birth. In those images, I saw the people I’d worked with in Western Pennsylvania. They were Lynn two decades earlier.

Like the fight to end racial segregation, the fight to end the segregation of people with disabilities took the hard work of parents, lawyers, and activists. But just like all great civil rights movements, real change came after the federal government got involved and passed comprehensive legislation. During the debates over the federal role in both fights for civil rights, proponents of local control raised hell and decried federal interference in the decision making of states and local school boards.

Now, this may seem like ancient history. But I have a whole list of names I think about after Lynn. In 1995, there was “David,” the first young man with Down syndrome in his community to be included in his local high school. I was “David’s” paraprofessional and his mother used federal law to get “David” into the school and then into the classes he needed to graduate.

In 1998, there was “Juan,” a young boy from El Salvador and the focus of my first IEP (Individualized Education Program) student as a teacher in California. He could barely talk because he’d been severely physically abused but was a sweet and gentle child. Yet, neither of the two second grade teachers at his school wanted him in their class because he had a disability. They said this in front of his mother, who fortunately couldn’t understand them because she didn’t speak much English. When our principal heard about the meeting, he called us in and furiously told the teachers that no one had the right to choose whether they would teach Juan or any child.

In 2006, there was “Marcus,” a young African American student in the Los Angeles Unified School District who had been labeled emotionally disturbed and sent to a non-public school for children with behavioral problems. When we reviewed his records, we found “Marcus” had a clean behavioral record until his parents divorced and he changed schools. Yet, instead of giving him short-term counseling , his IEP team wanted him out of their school. At the time, I worked for the federal court and because of our research exposing dozens of cases like “Marcus,” the district was forced to fix its evaluation process. Two years later, there were more than a thousand fewer students identified as emotionally disturbed, many of them African American males like “Marcus.”

Most recently, in 2008, there was “Angel” and her five classmates who had just completed a post-high school diploma project. Their teacher brought them to my office to tell me, the person who supervised special education in the district, that they all had been labeled “non-diploma bound” because of their learning disabilities. I looked into the issue and found that thousands of their peers had been similarly labeled, some as early as preschool. Shortly after that, we made sure that students with disabilities couldn’t have their dreams of a high school diploma cut short at an early age by an adult decision. Again, this was 2008, not 1975.

Sometimes the need for a hammer

In each of these cases, change would not have happened without the power of federal education legislation combined with the local activism of parents, principals, students, teachers, and the courts. The proponents of local control argue that everything will be fine if they’re given the freedom to make decisions. But the fact is that these decisions are dependent on the values of the people making them.

I have known many great teachers, principals, and administrators. I’ve also known those at the other end of the spectrum and everything in between. Our state and federal education laws and the way they play out locally are a reflection of that reality. In the end, the good ones don’t need the laws. They have the moral compass to do the right thing. For those in between, the law is often the excuse for doing the right thing. And for those on the other end of the spectrum, they’re the hammer used by the first group and external advocates to stop terrible things from happening to kids.

Despite all the bashing it’s taken over the last decade, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has worked in much the same way, both for children with disabilities and other “minority” groups. NCLB did something that many states were long unwilling to do: assess the performance of their students who truly had been left behind by our education system – African Americans, Latinos, English learners, and children with disabilities. And NCLB said it wasn’t good enough to just look at school performance. It forced states and districts to work to fix the schools that were failing. And like IDEA, NCLB has armed advocates at all levels, especially leaders within school systems, to shift the focus of educators to the performance of students who had long been underserved.

The flaws of NCLB’s targets and accountability system have been well documented. But its basic principle – accountability for performance of all groups within a school system – was a major step forward from a civil rights perspective. That is why nearly every major civil rights and disability rights organization signed onto a letter criticizing the removal of such accountability from the recent revision of NCLB that emerged from the U.S. Senate. On the other side, opposition to the federal civil rights role in education and many of the recent education initiatives of the Obama Administration includes many of the original opponents of the federal role. As Kevin Chavous recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, the success of this strange marriage of interests between teachers unions and the far right would be a disaster for our children.

In contrast, by providing states with the opportunity for a waiver from NCLB under a strict set of criteria, the Obama Administration has presented a true opportunity for positive changes on behalf of students. Through a waiver, California has the chance to develop a new vision of accountability for the performance of student groups on a broader range of performance indicators that both reward school success and address persistent failure. A waiver offers the possibility for developing a vision for parental and community empowerment in fixing our most broken schools. A quality application for a waiver could put California in the forefront of national thinking on how to build a college- and career-ready education system that results in improved outcomes for all our students, particularly those who have been underserved.

To date, 39 states have signaled their willingness to take this opportunity. In contrast, California’s leaders (unlike those in these 39 states) have complained about the potential costs and the process – to the delight of waiver opponents such as our state’s major educator interest groups. It is time for our leaders to change their tune. It is time for them to become advocates for the children, not the adults, in our education system. Failing to do so would be a sad sign to millions of California students and the rest of the nation on how devoid of vision and stuck in the excuses of the past our state has become.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

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13 Responses to “We should never waver from an opportunity to do what’s best for kids”

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  1. Gary Ravani on Nov 22, 2011 at 4:04 pm11/22/2011 4:04 pm

    • 000

    Nope. Spending has to be calibrated to reflect “cost of living.”  The notion that CA is middle of the pack has not been true since it dropped below the national average in 1985 in unadjusted dollars. ( RAND Corp) . Ed Week, NCES, and US Bureau of Economic Analysis, that do adjust for “cost of living,” rank CA in the lowest five states in K-12 spending per child.

    Do you really think those other states don’t have capital costs too? The costs for teacher pensions are reflected in spending per child as they are a regular part of compensation.

    The highest spending states, the northeast quadrant, are also the highest scoring states on the NAEP. That’s the definition of correlation.

    CA should apply for waivers. The application should be based on the collaboratively developed Blueprint for Great Schools available on the CDE website. It will be a specific CA waiver, based on CA’s needs, and contained by CA’s support for schools.

  2. Michael Robertson on Nov 21, 2011 at 10:51 am11/21/2011 10:51 am

    • 000

    This is just a lie that gets repeated over and over:
    CA is now 46th of the 50 states in education funding per child.
    Please be factual. In fact CA is in the middle of the pack when it comes to per pupil spending. See: http://www2.census.gov/govs/school/09f33pub.pdf
    And actually the numbers above greatly under count CA spending since items like teacher pensions and capital expenditures are not included. Add those into the analysis (because eventually CA taxpayers are going to have to pay them) and CA is near the top.
    These per student numbers also don’t include any Federal money which this year is $70 BILLION and a significant portion of that goes to states for k-12 education.
    It should be noted that spending more money doesn’t lead to a better education. Let me say that again: Spending more money DOESN’T lead to a better education. There’s simply no correlation whatsoever. Administration will grow, teachers will get more pay, bureaucracy will grow but kids won’t benefit.
    Throwing money at the problem won’t make it better.

  3. el on Nov 18, 2011 at 9:37 pm11/18/2011 9:37 pm

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    I would suggest that the idea that California even can adopt Common Core in one year without significantly damaging education for some students is ridiculous.
    Every time we change curricula midway on a student, we cause damage. If the new curriculum is a zillion times better, it’s worth doing and shoring up the damage to realign the kids, but people should realize that when you change suddenly the order of what concepts are taught, the kids in the upper grades haven’t had the instruction that the curriculum assumes was taught earlier. A transition is needed, which takes extra planning and a lot of extra work on the part of teachers.
    I can’t help but note that our county adopted a new math curriculum just 3 years ago. We’re just back to having everyone steaming merrily ahead. Right now, everyone is waiting on new adoptions because of the looming Common Core…. and in general, there is a deliberate effort not to adopt on more than one subject in a year. If you did all the subjects immediately, huge amounts of time would be lost to it.

  4. Doug Lasken on Nov 18, 2011 at 5:44 pm11/18/2011 5:44 pm

    • 000

    Hilary, also respectfully, you’ve somewhat misquoted me.  I did not say that the CCSS is the reason we can’t afford to apply for a waiver.  We can’t afford CCSS with or without a waiver.  At least the 99% can’t.  Sorry, a little humor!  I do need to point out, though, that your contention that CA has already adopted CCSS is disingenuous.  The adoption process has been one privy council sweet deal after another, starting with Schwarzennegger’s browbeating the state board into submission, backed up by publishers and test writers and aided and abetted by a few true believers who think new standards  are what we need.  Strictly speaking that’s not adoption; that’s co-option.

  5. Gary Ravani on Nov 18, 2011 at 2:34 pm11/18/2011 2:34 pm

    • 000


    Perhaps you don’t understand. The costs of implementing Common Core, estimated by Ed Source as being in excess of $1.5 billion, would need to be expended in one year. CA is likely to cut more than $1.5 billion from education in January. Not only would the non-research based conditions of the waivers be an educational disaster (RTTT without the funding) but, in the context of CA’s Grover Norquist driven budget gridlock, it is silly-and not in a funny way.

  6. Gary Ravani on Nov 18, 2011 at 2:25 pm11/18/2011 2:25 pm

    • 000

    As noted previously, the “achievement gap” was a well known  and publicly acknowledged issue for decades prior to NCLB. The Coleman report to Congress in the mid-1960s is but one example. It is a pernicious (not to mention silly) bit of propaganda to suggest educators were not aware of, or not trying to remedy, the disparate educational outcomes indicated by ethnic and economic groupings.
    NCLB didn’t do anything to deal with disparities. It just provided a means for certain elements of society to point and wag their fingers at educators working in the most challenged communities. In concert with providing ammunition for the community scolds it conveniently diverted public attention from the real causes of educational  failure; that is, the unwillingness of business and the wealthy to contribute their fair share to mediating the conditions of concentrated poverty that Coleman warned the country about decades ago.
    improving educational achievement is about a great deal more than measuring things over and over and publishing the results. It’s about improving the conditions in children’s families and communities that, according to ETS (CA’s testing vendor) that account for 66% of variability in school achievement. NCLB style scape-goating of schools and teachers hasn’t done much for education in a decade. The Duncan waiver proposals are just  doing the same thing over and over and expecting different outcomes. And a very expensive waste of scarce capital to boot.
    Let’s talk about real standards and accountability. CA is now 46th of the 50 states in education funding per child. What kind of standard is that? Who is going to stand up to be held accountable for that?
    Anybody?  Anybody?

  7. Hilary McLean on Nov 18, 2011 at 2:06 pm11/18/2011 2:06 pm

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    Doug – respectfully, California has already adopted the Common Core State Standards and has committed to implementing them, irrespective of the waiver process.  Citing the cost of Common Core implementation as the reason California can’t afford to apply for a waiver is a red herring.

  8. Ellen Wheeler on Nov 18, 2011 at 2:02 pm11/18/2011 2:02 pm

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    Thank you for this powerful story and advocacy piece, Arun. The League of Women Voters has undertaken a study on “The Federal Role in Public Education.” Your piece is useful to all of us, and particularly to Leaguers. I plan to forward it to our LWV listserve.

  9. Eric Larsen on Nov 18, 2011 at 1:46 pm11/18/2011 1:46 pm

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    Dr. Ramanathan omits a particularly relevant example of how the federal government has played a role in forcing school districts to do right by children.
    Schools in the South remained segregated well into the 1960s.  The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 offered large grants to schools.  To accept these grants, schools were required to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and desegregate their schools.  In “Paying for Progress:  Conditional Grants and the Desegregation of Southern Schools,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 125, No. 1, February 2010, Elizabeth Cascio and coauthors explore the role that the “carrot” provided by ESEA played in desegregating schools in the South.  Although ESEA did not have as large an effect as did court orders to desegregate in the 1970s, school districts in the South for which ESEA created the greatest incentive to comply with CRA were less likely to be under court order in the 1970s.

  10. Doug Lasken on Nov 18, 2011 at 9:53 am11/18/2011 9:53 am

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    Well stated!  It’s reassuring that the NCLB waiver will require valid assessment so we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.  My only demurral is the reference to cost.  If the waivers demand acceptance of the Common Core standards, we’ll face a substantial and unnecessary, not to mention legally questionable cost that will enrich special interests and help no children.

  11. CarolineSF on Nov 18, 2011 at 9:50 am11/18/2011 9:50 am

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    I challenge the tone of contempt for educators implicit in comments like these: “… the good ones don’t need the laws. They have the moral compass to do the right thing.”
    Overall, educators DO struggle to “do the right thing” in dealing with the needs of students with disabilities and special health care needs. Doing the right thing is very challenging and badly underfunded, and it’s oh-so-easy for those who work in nice offices in policy organizations to make pronouncements (I see that you’ve been there, @Arun, but how soon we forget). And of course all kinds of bashing comes from people who never set foot in a public school classroom except on a staged tour and who have zero experience working to meet the needs of all students.
    And I echo #el’s comment as well.

  12. el on Nov 18, 2011 at 8:19 am11/18/2011 8:19 am

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    I appreciate Mr. Ramanathan’s account and his efforts on behalf of underserved kids. I am saddened that such fights are still necessary.

    What I don’t understand is how meeting the conditions of the waiver improves California schools. I understand we want the $50 million, but I don’t understand how or why the list of obligations needed to receive that money will be beneficial to our students based on where we are today. That’s the argument I need to hear.

  13. Michael G. on Nov 18, 2011 at 2:56 am11/18/2011 2:56 am

    • 000

    I always enjoy Mr. Ramanathan’s writings.  He speaks truth and gets to the real heart of the matter.  Any problems with NCLB can be solved without altering it’s basic thrust to provide legal protection for the most vulnerable children.

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