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Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era

What do the war on drugs and market-oriented education reform have in common?

Part of the Series

There are significant parallels between the war on drugs and market-oriented education reform, and both create an underclass – especially among African American males, according to Thomas, who traces the history.

In the United States, the intersection of the criminal justice system and public schools has intensified in the wake of school shootings, prompting similar solutions from supposedly opposite ends of the political spectrum. As noted in a New York Times editorial, “The National Rifle Association and President Obama responded to the Newtown, Conn., shootings by recommending that more police officers be placed in the nation’s schools.”

As the editorial points out, however, research tends to show that police in the hallways creates schools-as-prisons and students-as-criminals, increasing, rather than eliminating, the problems. In another piece, Chloe Angyal highlights the disturbing connection between incarceration and education:

Punishment rates in schools mirror the rates in the ‘real world’ – though what could be more real than entrenched discrimination in our schools? – and in fact, contribute to those real world figures. The Civil Rights Project report notes that the abuse and misuse of suspensions can turn them into “gateways to prison.” Even if that were not the case, even absent a school-to-prison pipeline, the situation would be grim enough. What this report reveals is a disregard for the well-being of marginalized populations that, were it directed at other groups, would never be allowed to stand. If a quarter of white middle school boys were being suspended every school year, and if pretty white ladies were being frisked on the streets of Manhattan, there’d be an uproar.

While the term “a nation at risk” tends to be associated with the 1983 report on US education from the Reagan administration, the early 1980s also spawned an era of mass incarceration, built on claims that the United States was also a nation at risk because of illegal drug sales and use, identified by author Michelle Alexander as The New Jim Crow:

In October 1982, President Reagan officially announced his administration’s “War on Drugs. At the time he declared this new war, less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the country. This fact was no deterrent to Reagan, for the drug war from the outset had little to do with public concern about drugs and much to do with public concern about race. By waging a war on drug users and drug dealers, Reagan made good on his promise to crack down on the racially defined “others” – the undeserving. (p. 49)

Within a year of each other, then, the Reagan administration launched a war on drugs and a crisis response to public education. Just as Alexander details the masked intent behind the war on drugs, John Holton exposed A Nation at Risk as less about education reform and more about political agendas.

We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom; encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools; support vouchers; leave the primary responsibility for education to parents; and please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education. Or, at least, don’t ask to waste more federal money on education – “We have put in more only to wind up with less.”

For three decades, the War on Drugs has led to mass incarceration, primarily impacting African American males, the racially defined “others,” and the education reform movement based on high-stakes accountability has targeted “other people’s children” in ways that suggest market-oriented education reform is a school-based component of the New Jim Crow grounded in the criminal justice system.

Mass incarceration and market-oriented education reform share more than their genesis in the 1980s, since both have been shown to cause far more harm than good and to further marginalize African American and impoverished youths and adults.

The Dark Reality of Market-Oriented Education Reform

The education accountability era begun in the early 1980s focused on implementing curriculum standards and high-stakes testing, first at the state level and then over the decade since No Child Left Behind (NCLB), increasingly at the national level.

The evolution of the education reform movement has included some central ideological commitments – focusing on in-school-only reform and relying on slogans such as “no excuses” and “poverty is not destiny,” as expressed in a 2010 manifesto from several key figures in reform, Michelle Rhee, Paul Vallas and Joel Klein:

So, where do we start? With the basics. As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income – it is the quality of their teacher.

Yet, for too long, we have let teacher hiring and retention be determined by archaic rules involving seniority and academic credentials. The widespread policy of “last in, first out” (the teacher with the least seniority is the first to go when cuts have to be made) makes it harder to hold on to new, enthusiastic educators and ignores the one thing that should matter most: performance.

At first, reform was driven by revolutionary promises and often unverified claims of public school failure, but over the past 30 years, ample evidence now suggests that political education reform has failed to fulfill its promises, and, in a mechanism similar to the negative consequences of the mass incarceration, has harmed the exact students those reforms were designed to help.

The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education has resisted market-oriented, in-school-only reform championed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Rhee, Vallas and Klein, calling instead for social and educational reform seeking equity of opportunity for all families and students. In Broader, Bolder’s “Market-Oriented Education Reforms’ Rhetoric Trumps Reality” (April 18, 2013), Elaine Weiss and Don Long examine test-based teacher evaluations, school closures and expanded charter schools in Chicago, New York City and Washington, DC, concluding: “The report finds that the reforms delivered few benefits and in some cases harmed the students they purport to help. It also identifies a set of largely neglected policies with real promise to weaken the poverty-education link, if they receive some of the attention and resources now targeted to the touted reforms.” (p. 3)

Market-oriented education reform has depended on addressing inequity indirectly, trusting mechanisms such as choice and business models of managing teachers as well as schools to initiate social change. This reform has specifically targeted goals such as closing the achievement gap, better serving impoverished and minority students, and raising international indicators of educational quality.

As Weiss and Long show, however, test-based teacher evaluations, school closures and expanded charter schools haven’t succeeded, even against their advocates’ promises:

· Test scores increased less, and achievement gaps grew more, in “reform” cities than in other urban districts.

· Reported successes for targeted students evaporated upon closer examination.

· Test-based accountability prompted churn that thinned the ranks of experienced teachers, but not necessarily bad teachers.

· School closures did not send students to better schools or save school districts money.

· Charter schools further disrupted the districts while providing mixed benefits, particularly for the highest-needs students.

· Emphasis on the widely touted market-oriented reforms drew attention and resources from initiatives with greater promise.

· The reforms missed a critical factor driving achievement gaps: the influence of poverty on academic performance.

· Real, sustained change requires strategies that are more realistic, patient and multipronged. (p. 3)

Further, additional evidence reveals (ostensibly) unintended consequences of market-oriented reform have included increased segregation by race and class in charter schools and a widening gap between the type of educational experiences affluent children receive compared with the authoritarian and test-prep-focused “no excuses” schools for minority and impoverished students, notably as detailed in Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope, exploring the post-Katrina rise of charter schools in New Orleans:

But inside the schools, the war over education no longer seems so stark and clearly defined. Edges blur, shades of gray abound, and simple solutions prove elusive. . . . Many of the most powerful people in the country have a plan for the future of education in America, one focused on more charter schools, technocratic governance, weakened teachers’ unions and the relentless use of data to measure student and teacher progress. (pp. 5, 6-7)

But Carr’s narrative and analysis show that, as detailed in the Broader, Bolder report, market-oriented reform tends to replicate and even perpetuate inequity instead of eradicating it: Students in New Orleans sit in “no excuses” charter schools that are both authoritarian and segregated, while the post-Katrina Recovery District reduced the African American teacher workforce from 75 percent to 57 percent of the city’s teachers.

Despite the slogans and the rhetoric, schools experiencing the array of market-oriented education reform policies have shown that home and community characteristics do predict educational opportunities, mirroring the historically greatest challenge facing traditional public schools. Ultimately, like the War on Drugs, current education reform exists as a key element in America’s New Jim Crow era.

Education Reform and “Racially Sanitized Rhetoric”

Just as the education reform movement was spurred by a “manufactured crisis,” as exposed by Gerald Bracey and Holton, the War on Drugs grew out of a racially divisive political agenda, a drug crisis that did not yet exist, but created “mass incarceration in the United States . . . as a stunningly comprehensive and well-designed system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow,” as Alexander details. (p. 4)

Since market-oriented education reform is producing evidence highlighting the ineffectiveness and even negative outcomes associated with those policies, that the agendas remain robust suggests, again like mass incarceration, education reform fulfills many of the dynamics found in the New Jim Crow.

Just as mass incarceration from the war on drugs continues institutional racism once found in slavery and Jim Crow, education reform, especially the “no excuses” charter school movement, resurrects a separate but equal education system that is separate, but certainly isn’t equal. The masked racism of mass incarceration and education reform share many parallels, including the following:

· Both depend on “racially sanitized rhetoric,” according to Alexander, that thinly masks racism. “Getting tough on crime” justifies disproportional arrests, convictions and sentencing for African Americans; “no excuses” and “zero tolerance” justify highly authoritarian and punitive schools disproportionally serving high-poverty children of color.

· Both depend on claims of objective mechanisms – laws for the war on drugs and test scores for education reform – to deflect charges of racism. Alexander recognizes “this system is better designed to create [emphasis in original] crime and a perpetual class of people labeled criminals, rather than to eliminate crime or reduce the number of criminals,” (p. 236) just as test-based education reform creates and does not address the achievement gap.

· Both depend on racialized fears among poor and working-class whites, which Alexander identifies in the Reagan drug war agenda: “In his campaign for the presidency, Reagan mastered the ‘excision of the language of race from conservative public discourse’ and thus built on the success of the earlier conservatives who developed a strategy of exploiting racial hostility or resentment for political gain without making explicit reference to race” (p. 48). The charter school movement masks segregation within a progressive-friendly public school choice.

· Both depend on either current claims of post-racial America or the goal of a post-racial society: “This system of control depends far more on racial indifference [emphasis in original] . . . than racial hostility,” Alexander notes. (p. 203)

· Both depend on a bipartisan and popular commitment to seemingly obvious goals of crime eradication and world-class schools.

· Both depend on the appearance of African American support. Alexander explains about the effectiveness of the war on drugs: “Conservatives could point to black support for highly punitive approaches to dealing with the problems of the urban poor as ‘proof’ that race had nothing to do with their ‘law and order’ agenda.” (p. 42)

This last point – that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools – presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow.

For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons.’ ” (p. 210)

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters – and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools – the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters.

Market-oriented education reform continues to produce evidence that it fails against its own goals and standards. But more disturbing is that current education reform also shares with the war on drugs evidence that the United States is committed to the New Jim Crow, to which Alexander quotes Martin Luther King Jr.: “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” (p. 203)

The war on drugs and highly punitive, segregated charter schools are creating an underclass, significantly among African American males – facts that must be acknowledged before equity of opportunity can be secured. About this intersection of the criminal justice system and education reform, Angyal asks, “But the real question is, what will it take for us to fix this system that punishes students and citizens for no other reason but their membership in marginalized groups?”

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