Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Passing the Buck, Or Robbing Peter and Paul?

The California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, the State Board of Education, the state Department of Education and the attorney general's office all want a judge to drop a lawsuit brought against the state by the ACLU for illegally charging students to participate in classes and extracurricular activities, according to a recent report by California Watch.

It is a classic legal pissing match in which none of the parties are willing to accept responsibility, let alone acknowledge or address the actual problem: educational equality does not exist, nor has it ever existed, primarily because of inequities in school funding and a wealth gap that gives affluent students a large educational advantage over their lower income peers.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU claimed widespread instances of school districts charging parents and students exorbitant and improper fees for books, educational materials and extracurricular activities, thus denying lower income students access to many educational opportunities available to their more affluent peers, like athletics, arts and Advanced Placement classes.

While this does indeed happen and probably contributes to the achievement gap and inequality, the implications of the lawsuit are troubling and create their own problems. Forbidding the charging of fees, for example, does nothing to improve the financial status of lower income students. It does not get them to school well fed, provide for their medical needs, make sure their parents read to them as babies, or receive support at home for their academic progress. Likewise, schools that lack the resources and parental donations may be forced to stop offering expensive courses and extracurricular activities entirely. Furthermore, if the lawsuit is interpreted literally, it would forbid teachers from requiring students to purchase such basic and essential supplies as pencils and notebooks.

The state is not pushing back against the lawsuit for any of these reasons, however. Rather, they simply don’t want to be hassled or held accountable. They are placing the blame on school districts and saying it’s the legislature’s responsibility, thus passing the legal buck, but ignoring the much larger problems of the millions of students who cannot afford the materials necessary to succeed in school and the thousands of schools that cannot afford to provide these materials. Inequity between schools is thus ignored, as are inequities between students in terms of their readiness for school.

In response to the lawsuit, legislation was written by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-South Gate, that would have created a complaint process for parents and required audits to make sure districts were not making parents and children pay for uniforms, classroom materials and extra activities. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the measure calling it "the wrong approach," as it would have required all 1,042 school districts and over 1,200 charter schools follow audit procedures, even when there have been no complaints or evidence of a violation.

The ACLU is worried that the dismissal of their lawsuit would be a green light for districts to thumb their nose at free public education and would end any real hope for disadvantaged students to use the public schools to achieve the American Dream. However, disadvantaged students never had much hope of achieving the American Dream, let alone becoming wealthy, regardless of the quality of their schools. Very few people transcend the class backgrounds of their families and schools serve to reinforce this tendency, even without charging extra fees. The class-based achievement gap, for example, which is already present before kids enter kindergarten (see Burkam and Lee and Hart and Risely), decreases the chances that a disadvantaged student will have the requisite skills necessary to succeed in a fee-charging advanced class. Likewise, students from lower income backgrounds tend to go to low income schools which often have fewer resources, course offerings and parental donations. They are also less likely to have parents with the experience, connections and self-assuredness to get them into enrichment programs, internships and mentorships that can increase the chances of getting into an elite university or secure a high status and high paying job.

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