Civil Rights Groups Slam Obama’s Education Reforms

The groups have harsh criticism for every major administrative initiative.

By Julianne Hing Jul 26, 2010

Today, a group of seven education and civil rights groups released a six-point plan for equitable and sustainable national education reform in this country. And, big surprise, the report is basically a 17-page repudiation of the Obama administration’s education reform platform.

Groups including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Urban League, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and the Schott Foundation for Public Education called for an end to many of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s signature initiatives, and a commitment instead to policies that incentivize positive results and lay the groundwork for long-term change in the neediest school districts. On every major Duncan policy initiative–aggressive promotion of charter schools, turnaround models for failing schools, national education standards, punitive teacher accountability measures–the coalition had harsh criticisms. And this morning, the Education Department issued a pat response:

We’re listening. The administration is dedicated to equity in education and we’ve been working very closely with the civil rights community to develop the most effective policies to close the achievement gap, turn around low performing schools, and put a good teacher in every classroom.

On charter schools, the civil rights groups write that not only is charter school performance uneven at best, but many charter schools only serve a small selection of the neediest students. The civil rights groups criticized the blind acceptance of charter school-as-panacea, because charter schools often don’t accept as many students with disabilities, students who rely on free school lunches, and English language learners–many of the groups of students who could jeopardize their test scores.

"While some charter schools can and do work for some students," the report says, "they are not a universal solution for systemic change for all students, especially those with the highest needs." Regarding "turnaround" models, the reform approach that demands mass firings of teaching staff when schools are deemed "failing," the report said that where they’ve been tried, they’ve rarely produced positive results.

The civil rights groups perhaps reserved their harshest criticisms for Race to the Top, the $4.35 billion competitive grants program that hands out money to states that commit to the Obama education reform agenda. They write:

The Race to the Top Fund and similar strategies for awarding federal education funding will ultimately leave states competing with states, parents competing with parents, and students competing with other students. Moreover, even states that do not choose to compete for federal incentive funds should have an obligation to provide a standard of education consistent with protecting their children’s civil rights. The civil right to a high-quality education is connected to individuals, not the states, and federal policy should be framed accordingly. Good federal policy should mitigate political inequities that serve as barriers to delivering the ultimate change that is so plainly desired and needed. By emphasizing competitive incentives in this economic climate, the majority of low-income and minority students will be left behind and, as a result, the United States will be left behind as a global leader.

The Duncan-led Obama education reform crusade is built on several programs: the competitive grants program called Race to the Top, which rewards states with cash if they can prove they’re committed to the Obama reform platform. Many states have successfully rammed through overhauls of their states’ education laws to lift state caps on charter schools; tie teacher salaries (and job security) to their students’ test scores; and adopt national education standards.

Duncan’s reform often looks like a slash-and-burn assault on educators. Case in point: one of the education reform movement’s darlings, Washington, D.C.’s chancellor of schools Michelle Rhee, announced on Friday the termination of 241 teachers, and threats for another 700 teachers who could be fired within the year if their students’ test scores don’t improve. The stated aim is teacher accountability, by any means necessary. But in actuality, it just blames teachers for the plainly under-resourced and overly bureaucratic systems they work in.

The new report coincides with the National Urban League’s 100th anniversary and annual conference, where both Duncan and President Obama are scheduled to speak this week.

*Photo: Creative Commons/talkradionews*