Law in Contemporary Society

Education, the Great Equalizer: How Lawyers can help Mitigate Education Disparities Across U.S. Public Schools

-- By TaleahTyrell - 21 Feb 2021

When I was six years old, my family emigrated to the U.S. I grew up in a low-income household that highly emphasized the value of education. Each day after school, as my non-English speaking mother cooked or cleaned, she had me read or play math games with her. The strong academic habits I developed were largely cultivated at home. After college I returned to my community to assist at different schools and quickly learned that because of the many disparities within the system, too many children were being left behind. My hopes to address these issues as a lawyer became the source of inspiration for my legal practice.

Unequally Distributed Education does not Equalize

In my first role after college, I worked as a Math and Science Tutor at an inner-city high school. My students were 98% black or Hispanic. I followed the model I was hired to do and helped students complete their homework due the next day. However, when the exam came, the scores reflected the fact that they did not fully understand topics. It’s never too late to learn something new, but for them, it really felt like it.

A year passed and I had my previous students now in college come visit me. Many of them were barely passing their courses which were already at a remedial level. At least five of them had dropped out because they were not prepared for the rigor nor had the basic knowledge to pass courses. While these same students had been pushed to the next grade their whole lives, now, when they could not meet the academic level necessary, they were simply kicked out.

Creating Environments that Prioritizes Learning Equalizes Education

Though I realized that the remedial tutoring model so many non-profits follow was not sustainable, it wasn’t until I began substitute teaching at the elementary level that I saw how the issues could be remedied. I noticed who picked up my students in the inner-city— usually grandparents who did not speak English, or siblings who were a few years older, while in the suburbs it was usually parents. In the mornings, I watched students who were obviously hungry, quickly eating the small snacks provided to the students while those students who were not hungry played in the playground, letting out steam before class. Those students who came fed and had a chance to play always had more focus in class. During recess I asked students what they did the previous night, I could always tell the difference between those that did their homework with their parents who creatively found ways to make it exciting from those who worked on it themselves or simply did not do the work. In the evenings, as I reflected at home, I thought about my mother being home with me every evening when I was a child and reinforcing the lessons I learned in school. The students who did not reinforce the material learned before and after school slowly created a gap in their understanding, a gap that only became bigger and bigger as the years passed.

The Sort of Lawyer that Equalizes Education and Makes it Profitable

Upward Bound and AmeriCorps? , the organizations I worked with were great organizations that aim to address education disparities. However, catching up students with the homework for the next day does not address the learning gap that occurred the previous day, week, month, or year. Most of these programs have created a model that plays catch up rather than prevents the problem altogether because they are constrained by the government grant languages and state policies that all aim to keep children moving forward to the next grade.

This is where lawyers are necessary and will be central to the solution. First, lawyers passionate about education equity can understand the nuances involved with state education regulations and grant restrictions. My practice will aim to create detailed curriculum guidelines that fit within the restrictions but still address the need for replicating an academic home environment before and after school for the children that do not have this experience. Partnering with non-profits such as Upward Bound, City Year, Teach for America, and Reading Partners, attorneys will creatively find ways to help these organizations draft proposals that also do what they truly want to do: reinforce learning as early as possible to prevent students from falling behind. Second, lawyers will be crucial to litigating in court the issues that students have faced from the unintended consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act. After this Act, teachers were not allowed to fail students, however, simply moving them forward did not fill the academic gaps. The pushed forward child resulted in too many adult college students left behind. Pressuring States to recognize education as a fundamental right since the Supreme Court has said otherwise will be the litigation strategy pursued. This effort will start at local community levels by showing the success of schools following the new framework, to encourage other schools to get on board. Third, these attorneys will be invaluable in drafting up new legislation and policies that advocate for differentiated learning models in low-income districts that have traditionally had below average test results. Forcing all districts to do the same curriculum has not worked and lawyers have to be at the forefront of proving that.

The source of income to make the practice profitable will primarily come from the partnering organizations and government agencies who will pay for the legal services as they have the greatest incentive to achieve true academic success from their students. Supplementary income will come from donors hoping to achieve tax write-offs but also provide for education equity.

Though still rough, and will probably change in the years to come, this is the beginning of my legal practice and my plan for social action.

As we've talked about this in person, I don't want to be repetitious. Your use of your own experience is valuable throughout, but you need to be as brief as possible in each of your stories so as to leave as much room for ideas as possible. One is still missing, but it's the important central one, the one the first draft was written so you could find and build around it in the second. You don't want to end by asking, hands in the air, how can we fix this? You have taken experience and brought it to law school, and now is not too soon to ask what you want to do next about it. What sorts of lawyers lead lives that in your opinion can put them somewhere near how to fix it? Which of those lawyers will you start imagining yourself first? What would she need to get started? How will she make her practice profitable?

Yes, answers to these questions in the second term of law school are not yet realistic: there's plenty to learn with realism before being realistic. But you are ready to put your imagination in "Drive," because you have some idea where you want to go.

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r4 - 19 May 2021 - 03:12:18 - TaleahTyrell
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