Friday Reading List: The Obama Education Legacy, Civil Rights, and Free College

Emily DeRuy of The Atlantic looks back at the Obama presidency and its impact on public education. She analyzes the final "exit memo" of outgoing Secretary John King, pausing to contemplate his focus on Civil Rights:

Civil-rights groups have expressed fear that a Trump administration will not see protecting and promoting the equal treatment of minorities (racial, religious, and otherwise) as a priority, and King’s decision to focus on the topic serves as a something of a message that Democrats do not think the new [ESSA] law can be successfully implemented if what they view as the civil rights of some students are ignored ... The section on ESSA is not the only space where King devotes time to civil rights, which the administration and he in particular have called a priority. Officials in both the White House and Education Department have frequently framed education broadly as a civil-rights issue.  King notes in the memo that the department’s Office of Civil Rights has responded to more than 75,000 complaints and reached agreements with more than 5,000 schools and programs.

When I talk to federal education officials, Civil Rights - along with accountability - is the area in which they fear regress under a Trump-DeVos federal education policy regime. Michael Petrilli, writing at The Fordham Institute's blog, wonders if progressives need to rethink some of their Civil Rights orthodoxy. He talks about "subsidiarity," the principle that authority ought to be devolved to the smallest unit of community:

Many progressives in the ed-reform world will balk at subsidiarity as common ground, since they tend to reform through the prism of “civil rights.” And civil rights, so goes the thinking, must be aggressively enforced via federal power on grounds that some states and districts can’t be trusted to take rights seriously ... This mindset, in my view, for all its past accomplishments, now points down a dangerous road. For it rests on an assumption of guilt on the part of educators, local officials, and state leaders, as well as overconfidence in the reformers own technocratic ability to interpret patterns in data and identify solutions. In other words, it dispenses with both compassion and humility. Thus, for example, disparities in suspension rates by race are seen as prima facie evidence of discrimination rather than symptoms of social ills that strike some groups in America harder than others.

It's worth reading Petrilli's take, as he's doing an admirable job of staking out terrain as the non-authoritarian conservative in the room. I agree that national actors, often through a lack of humility, are guilty of overstating the compensatory power of policy measures to overcome embedded, systemic, local challenges. That said, this blindspot does not disappear at the local level, and there are some problems that are worth confronting, even if strife is inevitable. Pushing a Civil Rights agenda from the top does not automatically presume "guilt" on the part of the local actors, although in some cases, there's overt prejudice at play. Just as often, such an approach attempts to correct for blind spots, this time at a local level, that lead to the marginalization of vulnerable kids and families.

Jeremiah Grace is in Blavity talking about being both unapologetically Black, and unapologetically pro-school choice:

This disagreement over charters might take on a much different tenor during a Trump administration. It will be interesting to see how that develops.

Finally this week, Monica Disare at Chalkbeat cover New York governor Andrew Cuomo's announcement that he plans to introduce Bernie Sanders's college affordability plan to the Empire State:

The plan, which must be approved by the state legislature, received a warm reception from many advocates, including the city’s teachers union president, Michael Mulgrew, who called the plan “visionary.” Even Senate Republicans, who could challenge the plan, did not dismiss the idea ... cost could become a hurdle. Cuomo estimates the final price tag for the program will be about $163 million per year when it is fully phased in, which could be a hard sell. The state estimates almost a million families statewide would qualify for the program, some of whom are also eligible for state and federal aid. The program will also have to contend with another tough reality: Many students start college but never finish.

That last point is critical, as affordability is not a solution to the college persistence problem, which also disproportionately affects low-income students. Still, this announcement is another sign that education policy innovation is shifting back to the states, and away from the federal government. Watch for more of this in the coming years. Have a nice weekend!