(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.