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Fate of Affirmative Action Hangs on Fisher v. Univ. of Texas

New America Media, Question & Answer, Khalil Abdullah,

Editor’s Note: On October 10 the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that could upend affirmative action policies nationwide. The plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, is suing the state over her rejection for admission into the University of Texas, which considers race in allotting a percentage of available seats after the top 10 percent of high school seniors are admitted. Fisher, who is white, did not place in the top 10 percent. She contends the race-based portion of the institution’s admission policy is a violation of her constitutional rights. Veteran education reporter Scott Jaschik spoke with New America Media’s Khalil Abdullah on the potential ramifications of the hearing and what it could mean for minority college students across the country. Jaschik was the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003 before co-founding Inside Higher Ed, where he now serves as editor.

New America Media: How will this decision affect college admissions policies throughout the country?

Scott Jaschik: I think this will have a large impact in different ways. There are places like the University of Texas, other flagship universities and also elite private universities that consider race in admissions. These institutions are very hard to get into, places that typically make their admissions decisions based – in large part – on test scores and course grades. On average — and it’s very important to say on average because there are exceptions to this — if they eliminated the consideration of race, most of these institutions would admit fewer black, Latino, and Native American students. Many of them might see an increase in Asian-American students. In fact, when affirmative action was eliminated in California, there were initial spikes in Asian-American enrollments more so than white enrolments.

So, first of all, the decision will be important for the highly competitive admission institutions, but it [may have] other impacts. It could well affect the way many colleges, and not just the elite institutions, administer financial aid or how their summer programs operate.

NAM: Could you give an example of how a financial aid formula might be affected?

Jaschik: Scholarships that are based on income level are race-neutral and wouldn’t be affected, but some campuses have scholarships in which race and ethnicity are considered for certain awards, and you also have some summer programs and outreach programs that use race as a criteria.

NAM: How else could a ruling upholding the suit change a school’s demographics?

Jaschik: There were very interesting briefs filed with the Supreme Court by community colleges, for example. At first glance, you would say, community colleges are open admissions, so why would they be concerned? But community colleges want some of their students to transfer into flagship universities. In that process, race and ethnicity are sometimes considered … If affirmative action is radically scaled back, some [non-flagship] institutions might see an increase in black and Latino students. The impact of the court’s decision could really be quite broad, but we don’t know what the court will do.

NAM: What’s your sense of where court is headed?

Jaschik: Most experts think the current court isn’t generally sympathetic to affirmative action. The court could scale affirmative back partially or fully. You really don’t know until the decision comes out. Even then, if it’s a decision that drives a major change in current policies and the colleges start to adjust accordingly, there will probably be more lawsuits and court decisions. I think the ramifications of this decision could be quite dramatic over a period of time.

NAM: What is some of the possible fallout given the court’s timing in hearing this case? 

Jaschik: Because this case is going to be argued in October, in the middle of a presidential election … you’ll see a lot of campus debates. Generally when affirmative action becomes a hot issue, it can create difficulties for minority students on campuses who feel that people are raising questions about whether they are welcomed there or not, or whether they deserve to be there or not. If the court rules against Texas, anyone who has been admitted [under the current policy] wouldn’t be kicked out, and remember that not all of the minority students on that campus were admitted under affirmative action criteria. But it could be a very difficult time for people who are already on campuses.

NAM: With Justice Kagan recused from this case, what’s your read on the eight justices who will be voting?

Jaschik: A tie vote would mean that the University of Texas wins, but a tie doesn’t have the same precedential value as a majority five-three decision. Likely to back Texas would be Justices Ginsberg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. I think these three are fairly safe predictions. As the court’s health care decision shows, you can never be sure what’s going to happen. Nobody expected Justice Roberts to be the savior of Obama’s health care. So you don’t want to say you can be sure, but if you look at what the justices have written in the past, the remaining justices are skeptical of affirmative action. Sometimes people vote for what they’re skeptical of, but one of those five would have to change for Texas to win [by getting a four-four vote].

NAM: California and Florida are among the states with policies guaranteeing admission to high school students in the top-percentage of their class. Can you share some thoughts about Texas’ Top 10 Percent (TTP) admissions policy?

Jaschik: Texas has a fairly highly segregated system of high schools. [The state] knows, with a TTP, there are a number of high schools that are overwhelmingly black, so it will get some African-American students. It knows it has high schools that are almost all Latino, so some Latino students will get in. Now, obviously Texas [is] not de jure segregated like before Brown v. Board of Education, [it’s] de facto segregated. The question a lot of people have is whether this is the best way forward for American society.

A key criticism of the top TTP plan is that it doesn’t encourage high school districts to improve. They know the top 10 percent is getting in, whether they offer AP courses or not; whether they offer advanced calculus or not. Historically, one way in which flagship universities can promote quality education in a state is by having certain admissions standards. A TTP policy sort of takes them away from that.

NAM: If Texas loses the suit, what might be some short-term outcomes?

Jaschik: State universities would have to look to other approaches if they wanted to get a decent number of minority students. Some advocates of race neutral policies urge using economic status as an alternative. You could give a preference to a low-income student. This would still be legal if the Supreme Court said you couldn’t do affirmative action admissions. You’d get some black and Latino students and the benefit would also go to low-income white and Asian students. But I think most colleges would say that this approach and others would not add up to the level of diversity they have no

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What’s a College Degree Worth These Days?

New America Media Commentary  by Kelly Goff

That seems to be the topic on everyone’s mind as millions of American students head toward graduation this month. And by everyone, I don’t mean my classmates, the ones who have scrimped, saved, borrowed and begged to pay for their degrees. I mean the professors, parents and education reporters who just can’t stop talking about how bleak the job market is for new graduates.

According to a recent Associated Press analysis of government data, 53.6 of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 are unemployed or underemployed. News flash: the job market is tough for everyone. It has been since before we entered college.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in 2000 was at a 30-year low at 4 percent. We are now hovering around 8 percent, and that’s pretty positive. Still, in 2000, 41 percent of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 were unemployed or underemployed.

It’s not just college students being hit hard by the economy, or even being hit much harder, but it seems we are just a focus group that has been spotlighted. Maybe because we know this, and because we know that it’s going to be difficult, none of my classmates are asking each other where they’re going to be working after graduation, but rather we are asking each other what we’re going to be doing.

For some, it’s time to decompress, travel and start exploring the world. After navigating the labyrinth of paperwork and red tape of completing an ever-more-challenging requirement list, it’s time to take some time.

For others, yes, it’s time to work. And this may be at our retail, waitressing or freelance jobs. But if it pays the bills, then it’s ok for the time being.

No college degree can ever guarantee a job. And even if it does, it can never guarantee a job you’ll love. In a good job market or a bad job market, an education has more worth than the monetary value that a Gallup poll places on it, and the more I think about it, the more I begin to resent this monetization of the college experience.

Thirteen years after graduating high school, I’m about to finally obtain my bachelor’s degree. Perhaps because I took time off, went out there in the “real world” and found positions that were well-paying and didn’t require a college degree, it doesn’t feel like I’ve wasted my time or my money to get this degree. Those jobs might have paid the bills, but they didn’t make me happy.

As cliché as it may sound, the degree is about learning, about gaining knowledge and skills that will serve me well in any job that I do end up obtaining. Critical thinking, multitasking and the expansion of my worldview cannot be measured in a starting salary.

Yes, I might have to wait tables a little longer than I’d like, but if there’s anything that the last decade has taught me, it is that my degree holds more value than the dollar amount someone is willing to pay me just to see it on a resume.

It has also taught me that for those willing, able and determined, there is a place in the workforce. It may not be in their field of study, but it may be something that they love even more.

Those graduates who will get jobs are either in one of the few fields that have lots of openings, or the ones who are willing to try, try, and try again no matter how many rejections – or worse yet, unreturned phone calls – they must face.

They will take unpaid or low-paid internships (now that’s a whole other conversation) and hope to work their way up. They will sling burgers or fold cardigans until whatever debt they’ve accumulated is paid off, hopefully taking on projects that interest them on the side until they can secure a full-time position.

Despite all the reports of doom and gloom, don’t worry about us. We’re going to be just fine.

Kelly Goff is graduating from San Francisco State University with a degree in journalism. 

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Malloy To Begin Ed Reform Meetings

HARTFORD — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will meet with residents at town hall meetings across the state until there’s a bill for “bold” education reform.

The first in a series of community forums will begin 8 p.m. at the Village South Center for Community Life at 333 Wethersfield Ave., Hartford.

Malloy’s reform agenda includes closing the widest academic achievement gap in the nation by implementing changes to teacher tenure and access to preschool education.

For other tour dates and other information about scheduled dates and towns for the Governor’s Education Reform Tour go to http://governor.ct.gov/educationtour.

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Getting High at School: It’s On You, Mom and Dad

By Matt Amaral, Commentary

To say marijuana is a problem at the high school where I teach is a gross understatement. There is a tree next to the gas station across the street from campus where students smoke weed almost every morning at 7:30 AM. I drive by and see groups of them huddled in clouds of smoke. Kids walk into my class with red eyes stinking like skunk. Sometimes we suspend them. Most of the time teachers don’t realize the reason kids are giggling and scatterbrained is because they’re high, and many teachers can’t recognize the smell anyway. But no matter what we do, the problem persists because of the acceptance by parents.

In California, weed can almost be considered a culture. It is a uniting practice among a large segment of the population that doesn’t agree with its illegal label, and who furthermore believe it is a way of life. Weed will be legal in this state sooner rather than later, and no matter its status today, people go about their lives as if lighting up is the same thing as drinking coffee.

The vast majority of high school students have an easier time finding marijuana than they do buying a pack of cigarettes.

Unfortunately, on our public school campuses, smoking weed also has the aura of being what cool kids do. Smoking blunts, hitting bongs, toking joints and puffing on pipes is looked at as an essential part of their culture. It is a ceremony you need to know about, if you want to be known.

Of course, the idea of teenagers doing drugs isn’t anything new. Teenage drug use is always analyzed and bemoaned, and as it began to peak in the 80s and 90s, we kept saying things like, “Kids today…” Now, despite the fact that teenage pregnancy, drug use, and crime have gone down in recent years (all of it peaked in the 90s), marijuana use remains widespread.

When I catch a kid high at my school, I ask them, “What would happen if I called your dad?”

“Go ahead,” they tell me. “He’s probably high right now.”

So I call their dad, and sure enough he says, “Look, I know he’s smoking weed. I smoke weed. When I was his age I smoked weed too. All his friends smoke weed. Everyone I know smokes weed. What do you want me to do?”

Once again, I am forced to ask people to act like adults.

When I give my Weed Talk in class, it has a very clear message: Compare the weed smokers on this campus to the kids who don’t smoke weed. Who is more successful? Now, compare the adults you know who smoke weed to the ones who don’t, and ask yourself the same question. Weed isn’t the worst drug in the world. More people die from prescription medications every year than marijuana and alcohol combined (does anyone actually die from weed?). But I have to admit, the people who live that lifestyle—smoke blunts every day, live their lives high—aren’t as successful.

I know lawyers and doctors who smoke weed. I know teachers who smoke weed. But the big difference is that they aren’t constantly high. They light up on weekends. They toke after work. They don’t let it get in the way of their professional lives. Weed isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it can be if you make it the center of yours.

I just wish parents would act like parents. Even if you smoke weed, do you have to do it in front of your kids? Do you have to make it a part of their lives too? Do you want alcohol to be a part of their lives at 14? Would you care if they were coming to school drunk?

I guess the answer is simple, but hard to swallow. Those parents could care less whether their kids are successful or not. How could they? Because even the weed smokers I know always say, you can’t be high when you’ve got important shit to do.

What is more important than a kid’s education? Certainly not your joint, mom and dad.

Matt Amaral is a writer and high school English teacher from the San Francisco Bay Area, and a regular contributor to New America Media. His work can be read on his own blog, Teach4Real, and he is also a featured Blogger for EducationNews.org.


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Teacher Training a Key to School Reform, Commissioner Says

By Robert A. Frahm

NEW BRITAIN – It is one of the state’s largest suppliers of new schoolteachers, but after Central Connecticut State University sends its graduates into the classroom, it knows little about how they perform.

That was among the issues raised Monday as state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor met CCSU faculty and administrators to zero in on how to improve the quality of teachers in the state’s public schools.

“In a significant sense, it all starts here,” Pryor told representatives of the teacher preparation program at CCSU, the latest stop on a “listening tour” to visit schools, meet educators and assess the needs of the state’s public education system as he completes his second month on the job.

Pryor has made teacher quality a key theme as he seeks to improve public schools and address Connecticut’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gap separating the poor from the well-to-do.

“How do we set the highest standards? … What’s the right way to insure that the activities that happen here relate to student performance?” he asked faculty from CCSU’s School of Education and Professional Studies.

Joining Monday’s discussion was Gov. Dannel Malloy, who appointed Pryor in September and who has pledged to make education a central issue during the next session of the state legislature.

“Stefan has got a very big mission to accomplish in a very short period of time,” he said.

Studies have shown that family background, economic status and other external factors can produce large variations in student performance, but many researchers say that the strongest school-based factor affecting student achievement is the quality of the classroom teacher.

Malloy described the teaching profession as a calling. “When done well, it’s a guarantee of our democracy’s success,” he said. “Unfortunately, when not done well, it’s a guarantee of personal failure.”

In Connecticut, the profession could undergo significant changes. A statewide committee is expected to issue recommendations next year to change the way teachers are evaluated, and student progress is expected to be a factor in those evaluations. Some education reformers suggest that teacher preparation programs also should be evaluated based on the performance of their graduates.

That is among the chief principles of Teachers for a New Era, a project started in 2001 by the Carnegie Corp., calling for reform of teacher preparation programs at selected colleges and universities.

“Recent research … linking individual pupil records with specific teachers in many different cities and states has established beyond doubt that the quality of the teacher has a profound influence on pupil learning,” the Carnegie Corp. said in a summary of the project.

The Connecticut Department of Education granted 331 teaching certificates to CCSU graduates in the 2009-10 school year, making Central the second largest supplier of new teachers that year, state figures show. The largest was Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, where 383 graduates received certificates.

However, there has been little follow-up on how children learn from teachers who have graduated from teacher training programs.

“We really have a dearth of data,” said professor Nancy Hoffman, who directs CCSU’s Master of Arts in Teaching program. “Right now there is no feedback that would let us look at how our graduates’ students gain in their classrooms.”

Malloy agreed that better information is needed.

“We’ve been slow in establishing objective standards by which to measure ourselves,” he said. “Maybe going to an independent analysis by a third party [to determine] the quality of our product is appropriate.”

Pryor pressed faculty members about the standards required for entering the teacher preparation program. “What can we do to increase the number of candidates who come into your program with higher academic acumen?” he asked.

Malloy asked, “Are we doing everything we can to encourage those people to go into teaching who should go into teaching and at the same time discouraging sufficient numbers of people who … may not be as successful?”

One professor, Tim Reagan, suggested the school could recruit better students by offering more scholarships. Anne Pautz, an assistant dean, said some students avoid teaching because other careers offer better salaries. “Engineers can get so much more money,” she said.

State regulations also can be barriers, faculty members told Pryor.

Hoffman said regulations outlining specific course requirements, in some cases, are too complex and can limit the number of candidates for training programs.

“There’s a fine line between too much regulation and too little regulation,” she said later. “I hope they can re-balance.”


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Teachers Say They Should Write Their Own Professional Standards

By Caitlin Emma, Contributor

HARTFORD — No one can evaluate a teacher’s performance in the classroom quite like another teacher, educators, union members and administrators testified at a public hearing Monday night.

The Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, wants state legislators to remove the State Department of Education’s (SDE) authority to set professional standards for teachers. Rather, CEA proposes an autonomous panel led by educators to determine those standards for themselves, something a number of states already do.


LucindaYoungLucinda Young said Wash. state’s independent professional standards board worked and it can for Conn., too 


“When you’re only in an advisory role, people really don’t have to listen to you and often they don’t,” said Mary Loftus Levine, CEA’s executive directior.

The state seems more guarded about the idea, however.

Marion H. Martinez, the associate commissioner of the Division of Teaching, Learning and Instructional Leadership at the SDE, said department members attended the hearing only to collect information about the idea of an independent professional standards board. She said the SDE has not established a position about an independent board.

“Given the fact that the commissioner is relatively new, having come on board officially Oct. 7, and the fact that we have so many new board members, they are intent on gathering additional information, hearing what other states do and then making a decision after careful deliberation,” Martinez said.

Nancy Pugliese, who leads the teacher certification division at SDE, has said that removing the education department’s authority for setting standards is a bad idea. She said the CEA has thwarted efforts by the department to update the standards for years.

The hearing took place before the legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee (PRI), which issued a preliminary report on teachers’ standards in late September.

“Our teachers know more about learning and academic achievement than any other group of individuals in the educational system,” Levine said. “Yet our current debate is like a traditional New England town hall meeting with the people who know the most about the subject, our teachers, left outside in the cold watching silently through the windows.”

Connecticut’s current board on professional teaching standards plays only an advisory role to the SDE and state Board of Education (SBE). Seventeen members comprise the board, including four teachers appointed by CEA and other educators, business and industry officials, school administrators and two parents of public school children.

Cheryl Prevost, an East Hartford teacher and chair of the Connecticut Advisory Council for Teacher Professional Standards, said council members think that the SDE and SBE fails to value their opinions.

“I can say with confidence that this lack of decision-making authority takes its toll on teachers who sit on the council,” she said. “They often feel as though their opinions aren’t valued when decisions are made that have an impact on how they do their jobs.”

“I believe this (advisory) council could do much more if restructured and replaced by an independent professional educator standards board that had much more decision-making authority in governing our profession,” Prevost later said.

State Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, who is PRI’s co-chair, said he wondered whether public school teachers should define their own standards like some private professionals, such as lawyers or engineers.

“We have a choice as to whether we walk into attorney Kissel’s [state Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield] office, but I don’t have a choice as a youngster assigned to a public school teacher.”

Other public unionized professions in Connecticut already regulate themselves through their own autonomous professional standards boards. For example, Connecticut’s fire commission and police council issue certification, develop professional standards and provide their own training.

Twenty-one states, including Connecticut, use their educational professional standards boards for advisory roles, including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Maine and Rhode Island. CEA wants to make Connecticut one of 18 states with a standards board that makes decisions in some capacity. Boards from states like California, Georgia, Minnesota and Pennsylvania play a large to limited role in making decisions about educator licensing, preparation, disclipline and ethics.

Four states, including Delaware, Maryland, Mississippi and Texas, use semi-autonomous boards that make joint decisions with other state government agencies.

Lucinda Young, chief lobbyist for the Washington Education Association, and Jill Mack, licensure officer at Saint Joseph College in West Hartford and former member of the Vermont Standard Board for Professional Educators, both said independent professional standards boards worked in their states and it’s Connecticut’s time for one.

“For a state who claims to be on the cutting edge of education reform, the time is right,” Mack said.

Neither Vermont or Washington state suffers from an unprecendented educational achievement gap like Connecticut, said PRI member Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford. She asked if either state saw measurable progress in closing any form of achievement gap through their independent professional standards boards, and Young and Mack said they did not.

PRI will make final recommendations in December.

This story originally appeared at www.CTMirror.org.

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CPTV To Air “Education vs. Incarceration”

HARTFORD —  As a follow up last spring’s documentary, Education vs. Incarceration: The Real Cost of Failing Our Kids, the Connecticut Public Television (CPTV) will premier a new original special, Education vs. Incarceration: A Town Hall Meeting, live on Thursday, October 6 at 8 p.m.

The television channel will also air an encore presentations on Oct. 11 at 11 p.m. and Oct. 16 at 10 a.m.

Hosted by broadcast journalist Keith Kountz of WTNH, this one-hour special focuses on the vital need for educational and judicial resources that can keep troubled youth on track in school and out of prison. The conversation will also explore how socio-economic factors and race can bring higher risks for incarceration.

The town meeting includes an interactive panel discussion and an opportunity for viewers to call in or e-mail questions during the broadcast. During the program, viewers should call 800-842-2788 or e-mail justice@cptv.org.

Panelists on Education vs. Incarceration: A Town Hall Meeting include Dr. Steve Perry – Founder of Capital Preparatory Magnet School and author of Push Has Come to Shove and Man Up! Nobody is Coming to Save Us, Jimmie Griffin – Community Activist and a leader of the NAACP’s Waterbury chapter, Michelle Cruz, Esq. – State Victim Advocate.

There will also be a number of experts in the front row participating in the discussion:

  • Judge Christine Keller – Chief Administrative Judge for Juvenile Matters
  • Julia O’Leary – Deputy Director, Juvenile Probation, Judicial Branch, Court Support Services Division
  • William Dyson – Professor, Central Connecticut State University and Former New Haven state representative, school teacher and administrator
  • Mark Benigni – Meriden School Superintendent
  • Joseph Gaudett – Bridgeport Police Chief
  • Aileen Keays – Research Specialist, Municipal and Regional Policy, Central Connecticut State University and lead evaluator of Waterbury’s PAL program
  • Jacquelyn Santiago – Vice President of Operations, Compass
  • Joey Miano, Dean of Students, New Britain High School and PAL Coach

Education vs. Incarceration: A Town Hall Meeting is a CPTV Connecting Our Communities initiative made possible by the Connecticut State University System and the Vince and Linda McMahon Family Foundation.


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U.S. Department of Education Investigating Record Number of Civil Rights Complaints

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Department of Education is seeking to improve the quality of education for minority and poor public school students by aggressively launching civil rights investigations aimed at preventing district administrators from providing more services and resources to predominantly white schools.

Faced with public schools more segregated today than in the 1970s, the department is using the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to improve the quality of education for students from minority and low-income backgrounds. The department has outpaced the Bush administration in initiating civil rights probes.

During 33 months under the Obama administration, the department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has launched 30 compliance reviews compared with the 22 begun during the eight-year Bush administration. Investigators determine whether school districts have violated Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.

“The civil rights laws are the most sorely underutilized tool in education reform and closing the achievement gap,” says Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights, who has run the department’s OCR since May 2009. She said President Barack Obama has emphasized that he wants the department investigating education-related civil rights violations. “This is the most important civil rights issue of our time,” she says.

Last year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced on the 45th anniversary of Bloody Sunday—the day that Alabama state troopers brutalized civil rights activists marching on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma—that the department’s OCR would significantly increase enforcement actions. Duncan acknowledged that over the last 10 years, the office had not aggressively pursued Title 6 investigations to improve the quality of education for minority and poor students.

The OCR received about 7,000 complaints last year, a record for the department. School districts are being investigated for a range of possible violations, including failure to provide minority students with access to college- and career-track courses, not assigning highly qualified teachers to schools with predominantly minority students and disproportionately placing such students in special education courses and suspending minority students.

The OCR has also investigated schools for failing to protect female students of color from sexual violence and not offering access to higher-level math and science courses.

Judith A. Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project in Washington, D.C., which advocates for quality education, acknowledges a significant change in direction for the department’s OCR. Ali served as deputy co-director of the organization from 1999 to 2000.

“For years, we couldn’t rely on the federal government to enforce civil rights law, so now we have an Office for Civil Rights that is finally taking up the torch,” Browne Dianis says. “During the Bush administration, we wouldn’t encourage anyone to file a complaint. The feeling was that even if you filed a complaint, they probably wouldn’t investigate or would say there was no racial discrimination.”

Education Department officials express concern that a wide disparity exists between the achievement level of graduating white and African-American high school students in specific subject areas, such as biology and math.

Data show that white students are six times better prepared than black students for college biology when they graduate from high school. White students are four times as prepared for college algebra as their black counterparts. Furthermore, white high school graduates are twice as likely to have completed Advanced Placement (AP) calculus courses as black or Latino graduates.

Addressing the statistics, Ali says the solution is not “just about adding more courses” but better preparing minority students in these subject areas. The civil rights investigations are forcing improvements.

In South Carolina, the OCR has targeted school districts for concentrating AP courses at majority white high schools, robbing black students of the chance to take college-track courses. Because of the OCR probe, AP classes have become more widely available at majority black high schools.

Ali is also addressing the practice of assigning the least qualified teachers to poor and predominantly minority schools. By forcing school districts to end this practice, she hopes to narrow the achievement gap between whites and students of color, preparing more minority students for academically challenging courses.

The Education Department and education advocates are examining the higher percentage of minority students assigned to special education classes in many districts.

“Special education is another reflection of huge disparities,” says Daniel J. Losen, senior education law and policy associate at The Civil Rights Project at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Losen says school administrators often use subjective criteria to place students in special education programs, resulting in a disproportionate number of minority students being removed from the general classroom setting. Moreover, Ali says the department is evaluating why white and Asian students are overrepresented in gifted and talented programs, while blacks and Latinos are overrepresented in special education classes.

Based on an NAACP complaint, the OCR is investigating the Wake County (N.C.) Public School System for planning to assign students to schools based on their neighborhoods of residence. Critics contend that the plan would kill diversity in the school system and concentrate poor students, effectively resegregating the district.

Ali says “housing patterns and the correlation between race and poverty” also cause resegregation of school districts. “The federal government is working to end that kind of resegregation,” she says. “We’re very much trying to end discrimination no matter where students go to school or who they go to school with, if they go to school with kids who look like them or to an integrated school.”

Owatonna (Minn.) Senior High School is a case in point. The OCR received a complaint that the mostly white school had not acted sufficiently to stop racial harassment of East African students. When racial tension erupted in 2009 and white and Somali students brawled, school officials disciplined the African students more severely.

Due to the OCR investigation, Owatonna Public Schools agreed in April to take measures to prevent Somali students from being bullied. School officials issued an anti-harassment statement to students, parents and staff while training the school community on what constitutes discrimination and harassment, and meeting with Somali students to review their concerns.

The district must also submit annual compliance reviews to the OCR and the U.S. Department of Justice for the next three years. The case is the most recent race-related Title 6 investigation that the OCR has resolved.

The resolution was a coup for the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which filed the complaint on behalf of Owatonna’s largely Muslim Somali population. Many Somali refugees have settled in Minnesota over the past two decades, and the state houses almost 40 percent of all Somalis in the United States.

Taneeza Islam, civil rights director of CAIR-MN, says none of the 30 CAIR chapters nationally had filed such a complaint. “We just took our chances,” she recalls. “I had no idea how many cases they had and what their investigation findings looked like. Thankfully, we picked the right [presidential] administration to work with. The process has been really easy. It surprised us how proactive the investigators were.”

Resolving the complaint took about a year, Islam says. Since the resolution, CAIR has heard no more concerns about treatment of East African students at Owatonna Senior High. CAIR-MN has also filed a complaint to stop reported harassment of Somali students in St. Cloud, Minn. That case, under investigation for 18 months, is pending.

The Owatonna situation exemplifies racial disparities that persist regarding discipline in public schools. For instance, the OCR has reviewed schools in North Carolina’s Winston-Salem/Forsyth County system and Louisiana’s St. James Parish for infringing on civil rights of black students by disciplining them more severely than other students.

“There’s a national trend of students of color being suspended from school for minor actions,” Browne Dianis says. “When we think about discipline, it was originally intended to cover violent acts.” Data show that African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely to be expelled as their white peers.

Too often, Browne Dianis says, schools remove minority children from class for minor infractions such as tardiness or talking back to teachers. She adds that in today’s schools, where standardized test scores are emphasized, a child can easily fall behind academically, and the likelihood of dropping out increases. “Once you drop out, the more likely you are to end up in the criminal justice system,” she says.

In 2008, Browne Dianis worked with Baltimore schools on their discipline code to reduce the suspension rate. After the number of student offenses punishable by removal from class was narrowed, the suspension rate plummeted from 26,000 to 9,000 the following year, she says.

John H. Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, urges the OCR to address racial disparities in several education areas.

Jackson is concerned, for instance, that some local school districts remove unqualified teachers from poor schools but replace them with substitute teachers. He also says states must stop uneven funding of black and white schools.

“Look at how the revenue flows to districts and being based on property taxes, it creates an inherent inequity,” Jackson says. “If you know the process for distributing resources is creating an inequity, there has to be a process that rights it.”

He calls on the Education Department to withhold federal funding to enforce civil rights compliance, a tactic that the federal government used to help integrate public schools in the 1960s and 1970s.

Jackson applauded Ali for her leadership in re-engaging the OCR and examining racial disparities in U.S. education. “These disparities did not begin today,” he says. “They have been here for the last five, 10, 15 years.”

While Ali says the OCR’s aggressive pursuit of civil rights violations is continuing the historic fight for racial justice begun decades ago, she cautions that the current racial opportunity gap could reverse gains of the civil rights movement.

“You can’t give better to some than you do to others,” Ali says. “That’s not equity. That’s a farce. It goes without saying that equity without quality is not equity at all.”


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In-state Tuition Law Has a Big Impact for a Small Number

By Caitlin Emma

Lucas Codognolla’s story is the classic immigrant saga: He’s working two jobs to put himself through the University of Connecticut’s Stamford branch, where he’s determined to be the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree. But there’s a twist: He’s one of a handful of students taking advantage of a new law granting in-state tuition to undocumented residents.

That law is what is making UConn possible for the 20-year-old Brazilian immigrant.

“Because of my status as an undocumented student, I’m not allowed to get any sort of federal aid,” he said. “Coming out of high school, I felt like I hit a wall. You have dreams of pursuing a college degree and a career. It’s a shame that your dreams can be crushed because of financial reasons, simply because you can’t afford college.”

The law was passed in May over the objections of critics who said giving undocumented students a tuition break would take seats away from legal residents. Backers said the impact would be minimal.

It appears the supporters were right, at least so far:UConn reported nine undocumented students currently receiving in-state tuition, three at the Storrs campus and six spread among its regional campuses. The Connecticut State University System, consisting of Central, Southern, Eastern and Western Connecticut state universities, reported fewer than 10 students system-wide.

The situation at the state’s 12-campus community college system is less clear. There is no centralized data, and many of the colleges aren’t tracking the number of undocumented students. In addition, assistant chancellor Mary Anne Cox said, some of the community colleges never considered legal residency a requirement for in-state tuition eligibility, and simply asked students to prove they lived in the state or declare that they intended to seek citizenship.

Codognolla took that route to get in-state tuition at Norwalk Community College, where he graduated with an associate’s degree and a 3.8 grade point average. But pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science at UConn Stamford would have been out of the question without the new law.

“It helped me out a lot,” he said, explaining that he comes from a family of six children, including a sister who started at NCC this fall. She is also receiving in-state tuition.

“It helped my family out a lot. It gives us the opportunity to continue. I know that, based on my status, I’ll run into bigger obstacles in my life, but at least I have that college degree.”

Codognolla fulfilled the legislation’s requirements by attending four years of high school in Connecticut and signing an affidavit stating his intent to seek citizenship. His tuition bill for the year is about $8,256, a third of what he would have paid at out-of-state rates.

Even at the reduced in-state rate, however, Codognolla can only afford to go to school part-time: His undocumented status makes him ineligible for state or federal financial aid. He works as an English and math tutor and takes care of administrative office work for a construction company to help pay the bills.

“I think that with having the in-state tuition pass, we were able to provide some awareness about undocumented youth,” he said. “Hopefully other policies will come up later on that can help us, like other states passed legislation that allows undocumented students to receive in-state tuition and financial aid from the state.”

Codognolla, who has lived in the United States since he was 9, said the in-state tuition bill has meant more than a less-expensive college education: It has empowered him and other students as undocumented citizens.

“I’ve become much more confident in myself and my abilities, regardless of my status,” he said. “I’ve gained a lot of support.”

“There are students like me out there, students who have so much potential,” he added. “Once they reach that age where they realize the impact of their status, many of them drop out of school because they feel like they have no future. There’s still hope. Regardless of your status, you can still get an education in Connecticut.”


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NAM Radio: The Rise & Fall of the American Teacher

By Shirin Sadeghi, Contributor

He’s that guy who takes care of your kids all day long everyday. She’s the friend they need when they’re alone. He’s the authority they turn to when they need help. He or she is your child’s teacher and teachers are a dying breed in America.

There are currently 3.2 million teachers in America, but in the next few years 1.8 million of them will be up for retirement. Of the other teachers, statistics indicate that 62% of them leave the profession within five years and it has nothing to do with not loving what they do.

Jonathan Dearman was a teacher in San Francisco for 5 years before he left the profession to go into his family business of real estate. He is one of a handful of teachers who are featured in the new documentary American Teacher and he told New America Now Host Shirin Sadeghi what it’s like to be an educator in America.


New America Now is the radio program of New America Media. The program is hosted by
Shirin Sadeghi and is broadcast on 91.7 FM KALW San Francisco on Fridays at noon and Sundays at 3 pm.

New America Now’s Complete Show for September 23 and 25, 2011:


Click here to follow Shirin Sadeghi on Twitter.


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