Education Chief To Investigate Civil Rights Disparities In Nation's Schools

The U.S. Department of Education announced Monday its plan to intensify efforts to enforce policies that prevent civil rights violations in the nation's schools. The department says African-American students are six times less likely to be college- and career-ready in biology and four times less likely to be college-ready in Algebra than their white counterparts. Host Michel Martin talks with an education roundtable about the Department of Education's planned investigations. NPR Education Correspondent Claudio Sanchez; Wade Henderson, of The Leadership Conference Education Fund, an organization that promotes civil and human rights; and Bill Perkins, a Democratic state senator in New York whose districts include Harlem, Washington Heights and the upper West Side, offer analysis.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, just in time for Women's History Month, the Lady Huskies of the University of Connecticut set a new NCAA record last night of most consecutive victories, bringing their total to 71. We'll have a breakdown of this milestone in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about what could be a pivotal moment in education and civil rights. Obama Administration education secretary, Arne Duncan, announced that his department will be stepping up enforcement of civil rights violations in the nation's schools. The department intends to launch 38 investigations across 30 states to verify that students of all races are getting equal opportunity to coursework that prepares them for higher education.

In a moment, we'll hear from a man who some consider an unlikely critic of one approach to achieving that opportunity. He's a New York state senator who represents Harlem, where many parents are eager supporters of charter schools. And now he's saying, not so fast. And we will hear from Wade Henderson who's the president of the Leadership Conference Education Fund.

But first, we're going to hear from NPR education correspondent, Claudio Sanchez, who's going to tell us more about what these civil rights investigations are all about. Welcome, Claudio. Welcome back, I should say.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Always good to be here.

MARTIN: I just want to read you a short clip from Secretary Duncan's speech yesterday. And he said that in recent years, civil rights enforcement was sometimes portrayed as dealing only with outright bigotry and a narrowly defined set of explicitly discriminatory practices, even as it overlooked patterns of pervasive inequalities. The truth is that in the last decade the Office of Civil Rights Enforcement has not been as vigilant as it should have been in combating gender and racial discrimination. What is he talking about?

SANCHEZ: Well, first of all, for the record, the administrations or the 38 investigations or so-called compliance reviews that the administration is launching are neither much bigger or more numerous than they were in previous year, not last year or the year before. But what Russlynn Ali over at the Division of Civil Rights at the department has said is that it's investigations are going to be far more deeper, certainly more extensive, because certainly the administration feels that these problems have been ignored.

And what we're talking about here of the 6,300 complaints, civil rights complaints that the department gets every year. Most of them include sexual violation as early as middle school, sexual harassment, the disproportionate suspension and disciplining of black children, the poor treatment of non-English speaking students and denial of special services, including access to college preparatory courses and advanced placement programs. The list goes on and on.

Of course, the list of schools that are going to be targeted for these compliance reviews and some of the guidance that is going to go out, many of these districts still don't know who they are. And one reason, in my view, is that the administration is trying to choreograph a lot of this so that it doesn't look like it's being heavy handed. It is trying to make a very clear point. And the way Russlynn Ali put it was the department's Division of Civil Rights is back, and it's going to do a far more aggressive job.

MARTIN: Speaking of choreographing, the announcement was made at a civil rights landmark - I don't know any other way to put it - one of the sort of the critical places in the civil rights history of this country in Selma, Alabama on the 45th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, where hundreds of civil rights protesters were beaten by state troopers in an effort to get voting rights. Now what was the significance of holding the announcement there?

SANCHEZ: Well, the symbolism, as Secretary Duncan, I believe, mentioned in his speech is that he wanted to say look, we have come a long way. We have made enormous gains and improvements in the treatment and education of minority children, especially black children. But clearly, there is so much more to do, and that is really the impetus of this announcement.

MARTIN: And, Wade Henderson, I'm going to bring you in. Claudio, I'd like you to stand by and chime in from time to time if you can add to the conversation.

Wade, you'd expect that the department would be involved in explicit objectionable treatment of students. But it sounds as though they're taking it further than that and talking about access to certain types of courses and things of like that. So, what is your take on that? Do you think that that's an appropriate use of the department's resources?

Mr. WADE HENDERSON (President, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights): Oh, I...

MARTIN: Is that the appropriate direction?

Mr. HENDERSON: I think it's absolutely appropriate, Michel. First of all, oversight is always important as a guarantor of the enforcement of civil rights laws. And I think the announcement yesterday, as symbolically important as it was, should not be seen in adversarial terms. I mean, the compliance that the Department of Education is seeking is required by law.

And when you go to campuses and discover, first of all, that over half of African-American and Latino kids don't graduate from high school on time. Approximately 12 percent of high schools in our country, about 2,000 schools in total are known as dropout factories, because they are responsible for about 75 percent of African-American and Latino dropouts from schools.

So, I mean, those kinds of statistics are a glaring indicator that something is wrong in the system. And I think what the secretary has recognized is that, as we've always known, education is the universally recognized guarantor of equal opportunity in American life, and he's trying to ensure that.

MARTIN: Well, there are those who would wonder, though, is this a civil rights issue or an issue of teacher competence or some other factor? And I'm just asking you to sort of articulate...

Mr. HENDERSON: Sure. Sure.

MARTIN: ...why it is that you, and clearly

Mr. HENDERSON: Sure.

MARTIN: ...the administration, feel that this is a civil rights issue?

Mr. HENDERSON: Well, education, first of all, is a clear civil and human right. And why we think it's a civil right is because without a competent education, you can't possibly be effective in American society in the 21st century. And the fact is that states are required by law, when they provide education, to do it in an equal manner. But there are too many indicators that disparities that exist are the result of a combination of factors - both current and historic -that deprive African-American and Latino kids, particularly in poor communities, of the opportunities they deserve.

Some of it has to do with the nature of the facilities that they are using, which are old and outdated. Some has to do with the assignment of teachers. Some of the most inexperienced and ill-prepared are assigned to the most challenging communities. But a lot of it has to do with resources and the way in which schools are funded. And it also has to do with the failure of colleges to accept and comply with existing civil rights doctrine.

MARTIN: Claudio?

SANCHEZ: Michel, if I may just jump in. I think that folks certainly on the administration side have made the point that it's the achievement gap that is now paramount, not so much the racial mixing of schools. And the way that, again, Russlynn Ali at the Division of Civil Rights at the department has said is that the achievement gap is a product of the opportunity gap in this country.

And that gets back to the question you asked, which is what is that Latino and black kids in particular are missing out on? And that is good teachers, sensible or rigorous curricula, certainly opportunities to get into that college track, because so many black and Latino kids are often tracked into non-college programs. And so, it is really this access to quality education, as defined by educators, that this administration is concerned about and that they feel is really at the crux of this whole effort.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with NPR correspondent Claudio Sanchez who covers education, and civil rights activist Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. And we're talking about the Obama administration's new push to address civil-rights issues or inequities in the nation's schools.

And now, I want to turn to state senator, New York state Senator Bill Perkins. Senator Perkins, one way that the administration is trying to address traditional inequities in education is by aggressively pushing charter schools and other educational experiments. And you initially were a supporter of charter schools as a way to provide more opportunities, particularly to the students in your area, and you represent Harlem. But now, you've become more skeptical. Why?

Senator BILL PERKINS (Democrat, 30th District, New York): Well, I've learned this the wrong way. I've learned that, in fact, charter schools may even aggravate our efforts to live up to those civil rights visions that were exemplified during 1965 in Selma, Alabama. And it's, I guess, best represented by the statement of the mayor of the city of New York, who says charter schools are prep schools for children of color. Now, this is supposed to be a public school system in which the leader of the city is advocating for a separate, and what I believe are unequal, educational opportunities by suggesting that the best way to teach our children is to teach them in terms of charter schools, privatized approaches towards public education.

MARTIN: But these are public schools.

State Sen. PERKINS: They are using public dollars, but nevertheless, these schools only exist in communities of color. There are no charter schools in New York City that are in those communities that are not of color. In other words, the mayor has designed a system in which he expresses that this is where the charter schools will exist. And, in fact, in my district, we have been saturated by charter schools. In my district of Harlem, is like the Harlems of the city in which such saturation has been taking place.

MARTIN: But can I just ask you, what's wrong with the point of that?

State Sen. PERKINS: ...two separate schools systems. One...

MARTIN: But what if - if parents want - but the parents aren't being compelled to send their children to these schools. If they are seeking out these schools for their children, what's wrong with that? And what's wrong with prep schools for students of color, if I can just adjust that phrase on its face?

State Sen. PERKINS: Well, quote, "prep schools."

MARTIN: Quote, "prep schools." Okay.

State Sen. PERKINS: Okay? Prep schools by suggestion are schools that have excellent outcomes. And that is not, in fact, the case with respect to the so-called charter schools that are in my district and throughout the city. These are schools that parents have chosen to attend, and I myself founded one of the first - the first one in the state of New York. However, the results do not measure up to the hype. These schools are not competitively providing the kind of educational outcomes that quote "any prep school" and, in fact, even the schools that are regular public schools in other parts of the city, and particularly those districts, those neighborhoods that are, for the most part, white. They're not measuring up.

MARTIN: Now, we need to take a short break...

State Sen. PERKINS: So, we still have a two-tiered system of educational opportunity in New York City, one for children of color and one for others. And clearly the one for children of color are not measuring up competitively, the so-called charter schools...

MARTIN: Senator, we need to take a short break. We will come right back to you after the break. But before we go, I just wanted to ask Wade Henderson if he had a brief comment on this. Does The Leadership Conference, per se, have an opinion about charter schools...

Mr. HENDERSON: Oh.

MARTIN: ...on whether they advance or detract from equal opportunity?

Mr. HENDERSON: Yes, we do. I mean, I think we believe that charter schools have an important role to play in education reform. I mean, they provide options for students where obviously public schools have not met the demand for quality education that students require. But I do agree with Senator Perkins about the need for oversight. I think charter schools are often characterized in a romantic way to suggest that simply because enthusiastic students and principals come together that that guarantees educational quality and it does not. And I think an evaluation of charter schools suggests, in some instances, that that is overplayed.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we'll continue this conversation about civil rights issues in education. We'll return with our roundtable with Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference Education Fund, New York State Senator Bill Perkins. He founded a charter school and has now become a critic of that approach to achieving educational opportunity, and NPR's education correspondent, Claudio Sanchez. Please stay with us, because that's all coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're going to continue our focus on education. In a few minutes, we'll have an update on that famous teacher that you have heard so much about, Jaime Escalante. He turned a group of underachieving students into whizzes at math. The story is the basis of the 1988 film, "Stand and Deliver." And we'll visit with a reporter who has just checked in with him.

But first, we're going to continue this conversation about the multiple civil rights investigations being launched by the Department of Education. Here to talk more about this are NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez, New York State Senator Bill Perkins and Wade Henderson, who is the president of the Leadership Conference Education Fund, that's an organization that promotes civil and human rights.

Before we took our break, State Senator Bill Perkins was telling us that you were the - you founded one of the first charter schools in New York.

State Sen. PERKINS: Yes.

MARTIN: You went to Collegiate in New York, which is a prep school. And so, you've now become skeptical of charter schools as an approach to achieving educational equity for students who've traditionally not been well served by traditional public schools. If you'd just recap briefly why you have become a skeptic.

State Sen. PERKINS: Essentially they have not measured up, number one. And number two, they are being promoted in what I believe is a separate and unequal educational policy by the mayor of the city of New York. But let me just say that they are failing to - live up to their promise.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, though, Senator Perkins, the parents in your district want this option. And as you noted, these are being paid for with tax dollars. Don't the parents have some right to a say in this?

State Sen. PERKINS: Oh, yes, they do. And they are actually exercising their right by choosing. I am, as their elected official, sharing with them my observations of what is actually taking place. Our parents, unfortunately, are desperate about the failure of public education and are seeking relief any way that they can. And they are being, I believe, led to believe that the charter school experience is all that's left. And, unfortunately, the numbers show that these schools are not measuring up in any...

MARTIN: Let me ask Claudio. Let me bring Claudio Sanchez, NPR's educational correspondent, in to this conversation. Claudio, where - what does the data show? I know there's - there have been studies...

SANCHEZ: There have been...

MARTIN: ...many studies.

SANCHEZ: ...many, many studies. The record is mixed. I'm sorry to say that there is really no clear data. For every study that has said that charter schools have done extraordinary things and that kids in these schools have flourished, there is another study that says that they haven't, that they are at best mediocre and that they really have not surpassed regular public schools for these students.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that the data shows different things for different grade levels.

SANCHEZ: It does.

MARTIN: And, Wade, you're shaking your head on that. Is that...

Mr. HENDERSON: No, I think you're absolutely right.

MARTIN: ...comport with mine.

Mr. HENDERSON: I think you're absolutely right.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. HENDERSON: Some of the studies, as Claudio says, are mixed. But you are correct in suggesting that some of the data suggests that in the early years, performance does improve and it's measurable in many schools.

MARTIN: And I just want to point one other piece of information we've reported on on this program, that UCLA professor Gary Orfield(ph) recently spearheaded a study that found that charter schools are on average more segregated than traditional public schools. But again, I think, there are others who say that being sort of ethnically - a sort of a mono-ethnic experience isn't - not necessarily the issue for parents. The issue for parents is, are they getting a high quality education which their students - which their children want?

So, I - so just throwing that piece of information out there and if people want to look up the conversation I had with Gary Orfield, we'll have a link on our Web site. So, Wade Henderson, just weighing both things in the balance...

Mr. HENDERSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...weighing this sort of civil rights - a new look at civil rights enforcement and this aggressive push for charter schools despite this mixed data, is the administration on the right track or the wrong track?

Mr. HENDERSON: I think the administration is very much on the right track. I think, it's using the tools that are available to it to affect policy at the state and local level and they're also doing it in colleges. Public education is by and large a state function. And the federal government provides only about seven percent of the dollars that are used in public education. So, its role is relatively limited. Having said that, it's using its dollars effectively and creatively. And most importantly, they've announced yesterday that they will engage in effective oversight of the enforcement of civil rights laws.

MARTIN: Bill Perkins, I'm going to ask you.

State Sen. PERKINS: Let me just point out that the only national evaluation of charter schools was carried out by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond(ph), and this was funded by pro-charter foundations. They found that compared to regular public schools, only 17 percent of charters got high test scores, 46 percent had grades that were no different and 37 percent were significantly worst. Cleary, we should move forward with what the secretary, Arne Duncan, wants to do. But he needs to focus on that part of the public school system that is going under the radar when it comes to segregation.

MARTIN: Claudio, I'm going to give you the final word. I'm not going to ask you to assess whether the administration is on the right track or not, that's -your job. But I do want to ask you what we should be looking forward next in terms of evaluating these questions. What are some of the next steps?

SANCHEZ: The secretary will announce the first, if not the biggest, investigation in a large urban school systems. We've been told to hold onto what that system is going to be. They're going to unveil that tomorrow. So, if nothing else, what the Department of Education wants to do is, maybe for the first time in a more aggressive form, is oversee exactly what's going on in those charter schools, look at admissions policies.

There are places in this country that are literally getting away with, you know, very clear violations of - I mean, schools that really don't represent their communities, schools that are denying special ed services, that are not doing...

State Sen. PERKINS: Yes.

SANCHEZ: ...the right thing for bilingual or limited English proficient kids. So, the department, I guess, is saying give us some time.

MARTIN: To be continued. So, I hope you all will come back and talk again about this very important issue. Claudio Sanchez is NPR's education correspondent. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference Education Fund, an organization that promotes civil and human rights. Also with us, Bill Perkins. He is a Democratic state senator in New York whose districts include Harlem, Washington Heights and the Upper West Side. And he joined us from his office in Albany, the state capital. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome.

Mr. HENDERSON: Thank you.

State Sen. PERKINS: Thank you.

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