As the Education Department Strips Away Civil Rights Protections, New Coalition Aims to Fight for Students

Originally published in The Intercept on November 10, 2017.
——-

The Department of Education has become a civil rights nightmare. During her Senate confirmation hearing, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos admitted she didn’t know that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was federal law and suggested perhaps states should decide how to educate students with disabilities. A month later, the Trump administration rescinded protections that allowed transgender students to use whichever bathroom they felt most comfortable in; while DeVos reportedly objected at first, she ultimately green-lit the move. By June, the Education Department had announced it would be scaling back on civil rights investigations and proposed cutting more than 40 positions from its Office for Civil Rights.

Since then, the Education Department has decided to postpone protections for student loan borrowers and withdraw Obama-era protections for survivors of campus sexual assault. When a reporter explicitly asked DeVos if she would support increasing federal funding for IDEA, she wouldn’t say yes.

All this and more has prompted the start of a new coalition – the Education Civil Rights Alliance – to pool time, skills, and resources to defend students’ civil rights. It launched last week, and members say they’re aiming to fill a void the Trump administration has helped create.

ECRA is comprised of national legal and education groups, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Disability Rights Network, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

ECRA members emphasize they have never seen an Education Department disregard civil rights in this way. Speaking on a panel last week at the National Press Club, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said even when her union has had disagreements with Republican and Democratic administrations, they’ve “always been able to count on the Education Department’s Civil Rights Office.”

These concerns were elevated further last month when the Education Department’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services sent out a newsletter announcing it had eliminated 72 special education guidance documents related to IDEA enforcement. The department gave no explanation beyond saying the documents were “outdated, unnecessary or ineffective.”

Advocates felt confused and blindsided. After further investigation, they discovered the Education Department had quietly scrapped the documents over two weeks earlier. Parents of students with disabilities took to social media in protest – the hashtag #ThisIsMyChild became their rallying cry.

Several days later, the Education Department released a revised list of the rescinded documents, including brief explanations for why each one was cut. Some were scrapped because of updated versions also on the books, others because they had been applicable to programs that no longer exist. A spokesperson for the department stressed that “there are absolutely no policy implications” to their actions, and that students with disabilities would not be affected.

But parents and advocates for students with disabilities are not convinced.

Amy Woolard, an attorney and policy coordinator for the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia, told The Intercept that for families and students with disabilities, advocating for rights under IDEA means “near-constant vigilance” throughout a student’s school career.

“Guidance may not have the force of law, but it’s certainly a critical advocacy tool and helps states and families steer a very large ship in a consistently choppy sea,” said Woolard. “To revoke dozens of guidance documents so quickly and without much notice — even if outdated or redundant, as the department claims — is going to create a great deal of uncertainty and concern, both for states and for a community that has only had the protections of IDEA itself for a few decades.”

In an interview with The Intercept, Liz King, education policy director for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said, “We do not believe that the decision to rescind the guidance was in response to confusion in the field.”

The Education Department did not return multiple requests for comment on whether it acted in response to complaints or requests from the public.

Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a national group that defends the legal and civil rights of students with disabilities, told The Intercept that while her organization’s initial analysis indicates students will not be impacted by the department’s rescinded documents, it is disappointed by the way the Education Department made its announcement, which led to real chaos for many people.

“We know this is just the first step in the process, yet we continue to lack any information from the department on next steps, so it’s premature to know what the full impact will be or if substantive feedback provided by stakeholders will be considered,” said Marshall.  “Suffice it to say, we remain very concerned.”

Some national Democratic leaders spoke out against the department’s move.

“There isn’t a basic protection for students that Secretary DeVos hasn’t tried to undermine, and I fear this issue will be no different,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., in a statement to The Intercept. “[She] is turning the Department of Education into some far-right experiment that does the bidding of special interests in Washington.”

Kamala Harris, a senator from California and potential 2020 presidential candidate, took to Twitter to blast the Education Department’s actions.

 

Going forward, the new Education Civil Rights Alliance says it will focus on protecting students – especially students with disabilities, students dealing with sexual assault, and transgender, immigrant, and Muslim students. The alliance says it is hearing lots of anecdotal reports about increases in school bullying and harassment and wants to help push for better data collection on these trends.

“What we’re hoping is by putting all this power together, we’re going to make sure that we have the biggest bang for the buck,” said Miriam Rollin, ECRA director.

Rollin told the Intercept that the new coalition has not yet talked to the Education Department, but “they’re hopefully on notice now.” The Education Department did not return multiple requests for comment on the ECRA or its own commitment to upholding civil rights law.

The Obama administration regularly consulted with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said King, the group’s education policy director, but Trump’s Education Department has rarely ever contacted them for feedback. “Their work has not been sufficiently transparent, it has not been guided by a commitment to protecting students from discrimination, and it has been reckless and irresponsible,” she said.

In October, the White House announced its nomination of Kenneth L. Marcus to lead the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, replacing Candice Jackson, who has served as acting assistant secretary since April. Marcus worked as the staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for four years under George W. Bush and before that, worked in the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

Many civil rights groups are waiting to cast judgment on Marcus. “He’s familiar with the law, with the work, so hopefully the Senate will fully explore how he intends to fulfill his duties,” said Rollin.

But, as The Intercept previously reported, Marcus has a history of campaigning for laws to punish people who support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which encourages economic pressure against Israel for its violation of Palestinian human rights. Advocates worry that if Marcus is confirmed, he will push for similar measures in his new role, silencing pro-Palestinian voices. That would have a chilling effect on free speech — yet another attack on students’ civil rights.

Advertisements

Hillary on Charters: Yes and No

Originally published in the The American Prospect on July 6, 2016.
—–

On Tuesday morning, as the FBI issued a recommendation to not indict Hillary Clinton for her use of a personal email server while secretary of state, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee came before more than 7,500 delegates at the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly in Washington, D.C., and praised public charter schools—to the audible dismay of some of the delegates—while condemning for-profit ones.

The moment of tension emerged when Clinton started to discuss replicating the success of “great schools”—including public charter schools. She noted there had been too much focus on so-called “failing” schools.

Though Clinton has been a long-time supporter of school choice, and her husband helped to catapult charters to the national stage when he was president, she took heat from charter school advocates in November when she remarked that “most charter schools … don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.” Although an adviser emphasized shortly thereafter that Clinton remains a “strong supporter” of public charter schools, many reformers remained leery of her commitment.

But on Tuesday, Clinton gave charters a shout-out, resulting in the loudest boos she received the entire morning. “We’ve got no time for these education wars!” Clinton told the crowd. Facing the evidently anti-charter audience, Clinton quickly pivoted to denouncing for-profit charter schools, saying, “We will not stand for [them].”

The Representative Assembly is the annual conference for the NEA, the nation’s largest labor union, which gathers each summer to set its political agenda for the coming year. The union, with its nearly three million members, endorsed Clinton in October, following the American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed her last July. Throughout the campaign, Clinton’s ideas around public education have been much debated, with self-proclaimed reformers worried she would be hostile to their policies, while many rank-and-file teachers remained skeptical that Clinton would stand up for unions and fight efforts to privatize public schools. 

Despite these concerns, the mood in the plenary hall on Tuesday was overwhelmingly enthusiastic; members wore “Educators for Hillary” T-shirts, waved signs in support, and cheered with excitement.

“I want to say right from the outset that I’m with you,” Clinton told the audience early on in her speech. She promised that if elected, educators will “have a partner at the White House” and that they’ll “always have a seat at the table.”

Clinton framed her education policy proposals around the slogan of “TLC,” or teaching, learning, and community. She threw out a lot of ideas that met eager applause, from raising teacher salaries to reducing the role of standardized testing, to creating universal preschool for every child. She discussed “repairing crumbling schools” and making general investments in school facilities and technology.

Clinton’s rhetoric on charters mirrors language in the recently released Democratic Party platform, which says the party is committed to providing parents with “high-quality public school options” and expanding such options—namely neighborhood schools and charters—for low-income children. The platform comes out against for-profit charter schools, which it says are “focused on making a profit off public resources.”

According to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a charter advocacy group, just under 13 percent of charters are run by for-profit companies, though in cities like Detroit, more than 80 percent of charter schools are run by for-profits. However, the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit is often messier than groups like NAPCS readily admit: Nonprofit charters can still hire for-profit management companies to run their schools.

Some states have begun banning for-profit charter schools, or passing laws that make opening them more difficult. Last year, California legislators tried to ban for-profit charter schools from operating in their state, but Democratic Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, saying he did not “believe the case has been made to eliminate for-profit charter schools in California.” The momentum against for-profit schools has clearly grown more pronounced since then, and also reflects growing divisions within the education reform coalition, between those who champion market-based reforms, and those who push for greater accountability.

In her speech, Clinton also denounced her likely opponent, Donald Trump, who enthusiastically endorsed charter schools during a March primary debate and has said he opposes Common Core standards and “may cut the Department of Education.”

The NEA carries formidable political weight. According to the union, its members represent one out of every 58 general election voters. Rallying those teachers who preferred Senator Bernie Sanders for president to not only vote for Clinton in November but also help campaign for her will be a pressing priority for the union’s leadership.

Following the speech, the union released a statement saying that Clinton’s remarks “held no punches in articulating a clear and inspiring vision of opportunity for every student in America, regardless of ZIP code.”

Obama’s Mixed Record on School Integration

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 31, 2015.
——
As Congress debates competing revisions of the No Child Left Behind Act over the next several weeks, lawmakers are unlikely to spend much time looking at the growing problem of segregated schools. Despite strong academic and civic benefits associated with integrated schooling, and a unanimous Supreme Court decision which ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”—American public schools have resegregated quickly by race and class over the past two-and-a-half decades.

Many advocates had hoped to see the Obama administration take steps to address rising school segregation, but so far its record has not been great. While the Department of Education has paid lip service to the need to promote integrated schools, and has included modest diversity incentives within a handful of federal grants, it refused to use larger education initiatives like Race to the Top to encourage states and districts to prioritize school diversity. In some cases, the department actually pushed policies that made segregation worse.

The Obama administration came to power at an interesting time for the integration movement. With the help of Reagan-appointed judges and justices, court decisions in the 1990s absolved many local districts from their legal obligations to desegregate schools. Between 1988 and 2006, the number of black students attending majority-white schools dropped by 16 percentage points. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of schools where at least 75 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-meals—a proxy for poverty—jumped from 12 percent to 17 percent.

But many districts were also interested in racial and economic diversity, even if they weren’t legally required to promote it. And so various voluntary integration experiments began cropping up around the country. These new efforts seemed promising but quickly faced legal challenge. In a pivotal 2007 decision, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Supreme Court rejected voluntarily desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville, on the basis that their particular student assignment strategies relied too explicitly on race. But the Court did clarify that, under certain conditions, districts can use race-conscious measures to promote diversity. Justice Kennedy even endorsed specific strategies to do so, including magnet schools and interdistrict plans.

The years immediately following the Parents Involved decision sparked confusion, largely thanks to the Bush administration. While the majority of Supreme Court justices said districts could consider race in school assignments, the Bush administration posted a federal guidance that suggested only race-neutral means of pursuing integration would be legal.

In 2009, shortly after President Obama took office, a group of educators, policy advocates, and civil rights leaders came together under the banner of the National Coalition on School Diversity (NCSD) to try and push the new administration to take action.

“Our very first goal was to get the Department of Education to take down the guidance from the Bush administration, which told schools they could not promote racial and economic diversity,” said Phil Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council and NCSD coalition member. Their efforts were ultimately successful. By December 2011, the department posted a new guidance, which affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision and listed various ways school districts could pursue voluntary integration.

Other NCSD efforts met less success. One of their primary objectives has been to get the Obama administration to prioritize school integration within their competitive federal grant programs. While Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has repeatedly said that he supports school diversity and wants to reduce racial isolation, his department has not, for the most part, translated such support into its competitive programs.

Despite NCSD’s urging, the department declined to use its largest grant, the $4 billion Race to the Top initiative, to promote racial diversity. Duncan argued that including incentives for voluntary integration would have been too difficult to get through Congress. He also said that when it comes to successful integration efforts, we can’t “force these kinds of things.”

In 2013, Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute,responded strongly to Duncan’s arguments, pointing out that “no education secretary has been as deft as Arne Duncan in creating incentives—both carrots and sticks—to get states to follow his favored policies that are technically voluntary.” Duncan used incentives to get states to adopt Common Core standards, to promote after-school programs and early childhood education, and even within Race to the Top, incentives were used to encourage states to adopt teacher evaluation systems tied to student test scores. But in the case of school integration, Rothstein noted, suddenly Duncan sings a different tune.

“Only in this area, apparently, does Secretary Duncan believe that progress must be entirely voluntary, unforced by carrots and sticks,” Rothstein wrote. There have been plenty of opportunities to incentivize racial integration, such as rewarding states that prohibit all-white suburbs from excluding poor people through zoning ordinances, or withholding No Child Left Behind waivers from states that allow landlords to discriminate against families using federal housing vouchers. “Adoption of such ‘voluntary’ policies could make a contribution to narrowing the academic achievement gap that is so much a focus of Secretary Duncan’s rhetoric,” Rothstein said.

Despite a frustrating first term, desegregation advocates have seen some progress in the last couple years. The Department of Education recently began to include diversity as a funding priority in several of its smaller grant programs like the preschool development grants and its charter school grants; it also announced that magnet-type integration approaches are eligible for the school improvement grants (SIG) program.

While modest, these changes have led to some important new integration experiments. At the end of 2014, New York’s education commissioner, John King, helped launch a socioeconomic integration pilot program to increase student achievement using newly available federal SIG funds. King has since moved to the Department of Education, where he now serves as Arne Duncan’s senior advisor.

Other advocates have capitalized on the Department of Education’s 2011 guidance. David Tipson, executive director of New York Appleseed, says it was an absolute game-changer for his work in New York City. “Getting that correct interpretation, with some real practical guidance for school districts, I can’t even emphasize how important that was,” Tipson said. “There was a very deliberate effort to misconstrue the 2007 [Supreme Court] decision and put fear into many school officials across the country. Everything we’ve been able to do to promote school integration has come in the wake of getting that new federal guidance in place.” New York Appleseed, along with community stakeholders, sought to design a zoning plan that would help keep a school located within a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood integrated. Officials resisted at first, but they eventually relented after advocates presented them with the federal guidance. Thus at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, Brooklyn’s P.S. 133 became the first school in Bloomberg’s administration to foster a specific mix of students based on socioeconomic status and English proficiency. At the school’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, the city’s school chancellor said he believed their innovative admissions model could be replicated elsewhere.

While advocates of desegregation are happy to see the administration beginning to prioritize diversity within its grant programs, some feel these gestures are too little, too late.

In a letter sent to Secretary Duncan last July, NCSD noted that while the Department of Education has included preferences for diversity within some grant programs, in practice, the department has “consistently underemphasized” these incentives. Many grants still make no mention of diversity at all, and in cases where they do, officials tend to weigh other competitive priorities far more heavily, rendering the modest diversity incentives ineffective. For example, in one grant, applicants could earn an additional five points if their school was diverse, but applicants could earn twice as many bonus points if their school would serve a high-poverty student population

The only federal education initiative to significantly emphasize integration is the Magnet School Assistance Program (MSAP), a program first launched in 1976. However MSAP has limited impact today due to the small amount of federal funding it receives. Even though charters are far more likely than magnets to exacerbate segregation, the department gave MSAP $91.6 million in 2014, compared to the $248.2 million it gave the Charter Schools Program.

Advocates have not given up. Next month in D.C., the NCSD will be hosting a national two-day conference, bringing together scholars, educators, parents, students, and policymakers to continue, “building the movement for diversity, equity, and inclusion.” John King will be speaking on a panel there about the progress they’ve made, and further challenges they face on the federal level. NCSD hopes that King’s new role at the Department of Education will motivate the government to take integration efforts more seriously. The department’s press secretary, Dorie Nolt, told The American Prospect that “we’ve taken meaningful steps, and we want to do more.”

Yet this administration has fewer than 18 months left. And the next secretary of education could quite easily end even the modest progress that NCSD has fought for. “Promoting voluntary school integration is an area where the department has a lot of leeway to act on its own, in terms of trying to encourage state and local governments to prioritize diversity,” said Tegeler. “But that also means the next department has a lot of leeway to not act.”