From Ferguson to New York City, Education Reformers Have No Right to Claim Silence

From Ferguson to New York City, Education Reformers Have No Right to Claim Silence
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Lindsey Williams, 16, far right, a junior at Clayton, Mo., High School, and Zoe Calsyn, 17, also a junior, take part in a die in in the school cafeteria on Monday, Dec. 1, 2014 during one of a series of nationwide protests to show solidarity with protesters in Ferguson, Mo., in the wake of a grand jury's decision not to indict a white police officer who killed 18-year-old black Michael Brown. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cristina Fletes-Boutte)

RCEd Commentary

Over the last two weeks, there has been uproar over decisions by a New York City grand jury not to indict police officer Dan Pantaleo for the choking homicide of Eric Garner and a St. Louis grand jury not to indict now-former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for the slaying of Michael Brown. This has resulted in plenty of discussion about the connection between public education and the criminal justice system – including the school-to-prison pipeline perpetuated by the overuse of harsh school discipline like out-of-school suspensions and referrals to juvenile courts.

Yet you wouldn’t know any of these discussions were happening within school reform circles.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute all but sidestepped discussion about Ferguson during its conference on upward mobility earlier this week. Save for a question to Achievement First cofounder Dacia Toll about her perspective on using out-of-school suspensions, the think tank’s president, Michael Petrilli, barely mentioned school discipline either. Petrilli was later shamed into offering a statement on the Garner verdict after former National Alliance for Public Education President Peter C. Groff and I criticized him for his silence.

The usually opinionated Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute also tried to sidestep any discussion of Ferguson or school discipline. Only after his silence on Ferguson was challenged by fellow reformer Shree Chauhan on Twitter did Hess tweet that he had nothing to say about Ferguson because it was “not his beat.” Meanwhile, other reform groups have taken no opportunity to point out the connection between the issues of race and police militarization in the criminal justice system -- and those similar issues within our public schools.

This isn’t to say that all school reformers have been silent. Teach for America, which has been engaged in Ferguson since Brown’s slaying last August, issued a statement after the grand jury non-indictment calling on everyone to help all children know that “their lives matter.” TNTP and 50CAN also issued their own statements after the Garner grand jury verdict. Individual reformers, including Groff, Conor P. Williams of the New America Foundation, and Students for Education Reform cofounder Catharine Bellinger have also spoken out.  

But the silence of some of the education reform movement’s most prominent players and institutions is indicative of their failure to recognize that what happens in our schools ends up in our streets.

School reformers have bristled, often rightly so, at arguments by education traditionalists that public education can’t improve student achievement until social conditions like poverty are addressed. Yet in the process of dismissing those arguments, many reformers fail to acknowledge that the dysfunction of districts, especially in big cities as well as increasingly urbanized suburbs, help foster the very conditions of social and economic decay in the communities they serve.

There’s the all-too-clear reality that schools funnel far too many children into our criminal and juvenile justice systems. Schools account for three out of every 10 status cases referred to juvenile courts in 2011, the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. This is particularly problematic because juvenile court judges are ill-equipped to deal with matters that should be handled by schools, and juvenile jails are often beset by incidents of sexual assault and other abuse.    

Then there’s traditional school discipline. Decades of studies from researchers such as Russell Skiba of Indiana University have determined that overuse of suspensions are harmful to student achievement, especially for children from poor and minority households (including black students) who disproportionately suspended at higher rates (and often for minor offenses) than white peers. When districts over-suspend poor and minority children, they perpetuate perceptions among law enforcement and the wider community that black and Latino children are only criminals.

Reformers can even draw numerous and striking parallels between criminal justice issues and education policy. One clear example: The protection of corrupt cops by state laws governing use of force and cultism among their colleagues is similar to how teachers accused and convicted of child abuse (along with the merely incompetent) are enabled by tenure and teacher dismissal laws as well as by the thin chalk line of silence and support from fellow instructors.

Yet few reformers are willing to think through the connections between public education and criminal justice systems. Even worse, they are often unwilling to admit how overuse of suspensions often falls disproportionately on the very children from minority and low-income households for which they proclaim concern.

This was made clear earlier this year, when the Obama Administration issued guidance to school districts on reducing suspensions. While the American Federation of Teachers’ Chicago Teachers Union (which has worked diligently on school discipline reform) applauded the administration’s action, many reformers remained silent about the matter, while others such as Fordham Institute’s Petrilli railed against the administration for “meddling” and “overreach.”

When a teachers’ union does a better job than reformers of addressing a critical issue affecting the very children we claim to care about, this is a problem. When reformers remain silent about the injustices that damage the lives and futures of our children, it is unacceptable. Reformers have no right to claim silence on the matters that affect the communities in which our most vulnerable students live. 

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