Law in Contemporary Society

Community-led Educational Reform

-- By AbbePetuchowski - 18 May 2021

New programs, same issues

The educational arena is saturated with organizations and think tanks all promising reform. As a teacher, I quickly became disenchanted by the revolving door of initiatives imposed on teachers unilaterally by decisionmakers. I saw the disconnect between policy goals and the reality of available resources provided to teachers to implement programs effectively. Moreover, these efforts often focused on improving a single aspect of schooling, such as behavior management or test scores, while failing to address the interactions between these spheres. For instance, implementing a tiered behavioral program focused on prevention, is substantially more difficult if a district simultaneously fails to provide adequate mental health resources and places extensive pressure on improving test scores. Consequently, I saw reform efforts slowly morph into the form of previous programs, failing to disrupt the status quo.

A similar effect is evident in educational reform litigation, where top-down legal victories do not always translate to improved realities for students. Without a federally-recognized right to education, a significant portion of educational reform litigation has relied on affirmative state constitutional obligations to provide access to a sound education. Yet, how is a sound education defined, and what remedy is available for plaintiffs who have been denied this right? For instance, in DeRolph v. State, an Ohio court declared the State’s school finance system unconstitutional, yet plaintiffs were left with no remedy when the court in subsequent cases declined to define the metrics of an adequate education or resulting punishments for the State’s failure to comply. Likewise, in Sheff v. O’Neill, a desegregation case, plaintiffs successfully argued that Connecticut’s school system had denied them their constitutionally-guaranteed right to a substantially equal educational opportunity. Yet, the issue of remedy brought about challenges in subsequent years. In order to desegregate schools, Hartford officials opened 42 impressive magnet schools and implemented a voluntary busing program. While these efforts have received national praise, others have criticized this remedy as only entrenching inequity, where magnet schools are now largely filled with suburban children and there is increased racial isolation in city neighborhood schools. (“Left Behind,” De la Torre)

Roadblocks to institutional change

Researchers, advocates, and academics alike have analyzed reasons for the persistent status quo in education. For one, education does not exist in a silo. Since most students attend schools close to where they live, researchers, such as Heather Schwartz, have pointed to the influence that housing policy has on educational equity. Additionally, an adequate education is difficult to define and measure. While policymakers have increasingly relied on high-stakes testing as an accountability metric, this has been the subject of extensive criticism and litigation itself. Moreover, cases relating to educational reform force the court to make decisions regarding other governmental agencies, calling into question issues of separation of powers and judicial activism.

Importantly, equalizing education involves the alteration of a system of power that, for some, has long served to provide immense privilege. While it is uncommon to meet someone against improving education, divides often arise when humanistic ideas shift from abstract platforms to distributional realities personally affecting one’s own educational status quo. Thus, voluntary integration measures, such as those in Hartford, have yet to meaningfully disrupt education’s inequitable system of power.

Reforming education from the bottom up

While teaching, I learned about a P.S. 305, a local organization using community organizing strategies to build a movement of students, parents, teachers, and community members demanding for better schools in their neighborhoods. In an educational system driven by top-down decisions, P.S. 305 aimed to transfer power by equipping teachers, such as myself, with the necessary information and tools to become stronger advocates so that we could then reach out to other community members and repeat the same cycle. Similarly, under the movement lawyering model, lawyers shift power by providing tactical support for community-based initiatives, seeking to pass on information, rather than acting as gatekeepers of knowledge. (Purvi & Chuck: Community Lawyering).

Integrate NYC's approach

Last month, Integrate NYC, a youth-led organization, joined civil rights lawyers to file a complaint, alleging that New York’s school system violates its constitutional right to a sound education. The lawsuit argues that the educational system is designed to reinforce racial inequity, and rather than focusing on one reform area, the requested injunctive relief includes the elimination of standardized testing for the gifted and talented track, the adoption of programs to recruit and retain a diverse workforce, and the establishment of an accountability system. As described by Integrate NYC co-founder Sarah Medina Camiscoli in a panel discussion last month, the organization uses litigation as a tool to support youth leaders in maneuvering within a system that historically has ignored student voice. Lawyers hold informational sessions to ensure that plaintiffs understand each stage of the litigation and maintain autonomy over the case.

A broader strategy for achieving institutional change

Although some may be skeptical about the use of litigation to address structural educational policies, this strategy’s impact will likely extend beyond a singular case. Similar to Felix Cohen’s suggestion for the use of “patter,” movement lawyers can use legal tools to establish a channel of communication between the courtroom and those affected by judicial decisions. With this mechanism, community organizers can contextualize transcendental nonsense by drawing connections between legal doctrine and its implications on human values. For instance, rather than defining “sound education” in terms of traditional top-down accountability metrics or defining “integration” by enrollment numbers alone, youth organizers redefined these familiar terms with their vision for improvement. Thus, movement lawyering infuses new language and human narrative into legal proceedings and the public view. Through reframing the national dialogue, there a possibility that public opinion on education will shift to a more collective view that views inequity as harming all students, rather than just those students in under-resourced schools. While not without its differences, one can look to gay marriage as an example of the tremendous impact that connecting legal doctrine to principles of equality and liberty has in tandem with shifting public opinion.

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r8 - 22 May 2021 - 17:03:27 - EbenMoglen
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