Arne Duncan stood before the NAACP convention last week to repeat his claim that “education is the civil rights issue of our generation.” He also declared “the only way to equality in society is to achieve equality in the classroom.” Since Mr. Duncan did not spell out what he meant by equality or civil rights, let’s see if we can extrapolate his meaning from the policies he is pushing hard to be adopted across America, even if his heavy-handed forcing means ignoring the lawful Congressional role in making federal education policy.
Apparently, Mr. Duncan does not believe that the equality shortage in classrooms that we have known about ever since poor children started going to school can be helped by fair housing policies, better transportation policies, improved health policies, or new jobs policies, any of which we know could affect the poverty levels of urban and rural America, where rates are now the highest, after taxes, of any industrialized nation. According to Mr. Duncan, it would seem that policy shifts or new efforts in these areas are unimportant, for it is “only” in the classroom that we may hope to achieve equality.
Well, what kind of equality in the classroom would that be? Apparently, it is first and foremost a segregated kind of equality, a segregation that is aided by the spread of charter schools, which remains a top priority of the Administration. Two studies last year, in fact, showed incontrovertible evidence for the segregative effects of charter schools, whether run by non-profit or for-profit corporations.
So by ignoring segregation within charters, we must assume that the kind of equality that Mr. Duncan is talking about does not depend upon the sharing of social and cultural capital that occurs when socioeconomic classes are educated together, and it is the kind of equality that apparently pays no attention to the facility and funding advantages accrued when middle class parents lend their voices to decisions within the schooling community.
Secondly, it has become a harsh, punishing kind of equality centered on remediation, ever since the “let a thousand flowers bloom approach to charters” has been replaced by an urgency to ramp up and bring to scale the “no excuses” KIPP schools and the KIPP behave-alikes. In these "no excuses" schools, equality demands total compliance by children who go to school nine or more hours a day and then have 2 to 3 hours of homework each night. Plus Saturdays and part of the summer. In order to be equal in these school and, thus, make up for the poverty that puts these students behind, they must be willing to give up their childhoods, family, and friends for a chance at passing the necessary tests that may or may not prepare them for college some day. For even though the “no excuses” chain gangs remain the dominant model for corporate education reform, we know very little about how these children will fare in independent learning environments after years of total compliance and behavioral/psychological modification.
Thirdly, it is the kind of equality that denies the importance of the other massive inequalities within the communities where these poor children live. It is the kind of equality that does nothing to aid the child who must dodge bullets on the way home from a 9-hour school day, or who must return home to find nothing to eat. It is the kind of equality that refuses to enroll a child whose parents are not willing to sacrifice their child to a schooling regimen that parents of the leafy suburbs would consider abusive to children if it were their own being subjected to it.
Fourthly, it is the kind of equality that depends upon assessments that put poor children at a great disadvantage all along the line, for there is no standardized test used in schools today, whether in third or thirteenth grade, that does not demonstrate, on average, a direct correlation between family income and testing outcomes.
In short, it is the kind of equality that depends upon a race that has many starting lines but only one finish line, a race wherein the hordes of losers claim their place among those who deserve to be the “unequal,” children who will be dropped out, pushed out, and eventually forgotten behind the walls of the workhouses and correctional facilities that mark the destination in the school to prison pipeline.
If Arne Duncan’s views on equality are evidenced in his actions, it leaves us with a troubling realization. For to understand that for Mr. Duncan to be right in saying that “education is the civil rights issue of this generation,” we must stand shamefaced in admitting that civil rights now demands from equality what we previously could expect only from oppression.