Education Policy Descends Into A Sad Proxy Battle

Jeff Bryant

If you want to see how far off track the nation’s current education policies have gotten, just look at what is going on in Oregon.

As an Oregon news outlet recently reported, the Oregon House overwhelmingly approved a bill that would “inform parents twice a year of their rights to exempt children from state reading and math tests.”

This is a not a terribly surprising development given recent widespread concerns about the overtesting of children in our public schools. Nevertheless, supporters of the status quo in education policy see Oregon’s action as an enormous transgression – a violation of low-income children’s civil rights, no less – because the scores on the tests are an official record that there is an achievement gap among black and brown students and their white peers.

Never mind the fact that we’ve known about this achievement gap for 30 years, hardline supporters of the status quo insist testing is a civil right, despite ample evidence that testing mandates are doing very little good for the children they were intended to help.

Meanwhile, as the policy battle over mandatory testing is waged across the nation, new evidence of a real civil rights concern is being completely ignored by federal leaders and the policy elite in Washington.

We’re Sick Of Testing

Oregon lawmakers are not outliers in the shifting of American opinion on standardized testing.

Based on news accounts,” an editorial by two Miami University professors in Education Week recently observed, “parents opting their children out of testing is a national trend, with some districts reporting that more than 50 percent of their eligible students have missed one or more tests.”

Recent negotiations in the U.S. Senate on new legislation that would rewrite federal education laws have focused to a great extent on remedying widespread overtesting imposed nationally. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan himself has stated his concerns about overtesting of students. And his department has issued numerous waivers to federal education laws often due to misapplications and overreliance on standardized testing in teacher evaluations and other programs.

Oregon is hardly alone in considering measures to make sure parents are aware of their rights regarding standardized testing. Rhode Island is considering such a bill. As Politico reports, Maine state lawmakers also recently revived an opt-out bill.

Further, the Oregon bill doesn’t ban the tests. It just provides an avenue to inform parents of their rights.

Testing Is A Civil Right?

Nevertheless, the action by the Oregon House prompted federal officials at the U.S. Department of Education to fire off a warning that should the bill eventually become law, Oregon schools would “stand to lose $140 million a year or more in federal funding.”

A May 27 email and letter to the Oregon schools chief explain there is a “legal requirement” to impose the annual tests but in addition, and even more significantly, the tests are a “civil rights issue.”

Keep in mind, were the bill to become law and the fed make due on its warning, the funds that would be withheld are targeted principally for the most disadvantaged students – students whose welfare is indeed “a civil rights issue.”

“Those funds go to very needy schools and children to pay for many things,” an advocate from an Oregon-based organization explains in another Oregon news outlet, “literacy programs, second half of full-day kindergarten, other things that really help insure our kids are on the path to success.”

What’s A ‘Civil Right’?

In consideration of the federal government’s intervention in Oregon, education historian Diane Ravitch notes, “The only time in the past that the Feds made similar threats was in the 1960s, when districts refused to desegregate, pursuant to federal law and court orders. Who imagined that the day would come when the ED would threaten to cut off funding if a state allowed parents to refuse the tests?”

This is indeed an alarming development. And we now see that standardized testing – a policy whose impact on the civil rights of marginalized students is indirect (at best) – is being prioritized over things that have direct and verifiable impact on those students.

A Real Civil Rights Issue, If We Still Care

As my colleague Isaiah J. Poole recounts on the blog of the Campaign for America’s Future, a new report by the Education Law Center finds that in many states children who need financial support the most are actually getting the least. “Not only have states been generally slow to restore the cuts to public school funding that they made during the 2007-2008 economic downturn, but there are often extreme disparities between the per pupil spending in wealthy school districts and low-income districts.”

Poole quotes from the report, “Even with improvements in the economy, few states are translating that economic growth into greater investments in school funding … While total GDP has rebounded to 2008 levels or higher in all states except Nevada and Wyoming, 20 states invested fewer total dollars into the education system.”

The report features a “funding fairness report card” which, as a report in The Huffington Post notes, scores only two states “relatively well in all four fairness indicators: Massachusetts and New Jersey.”

The report prompted a “companion piece,” noted a report in The Washington Post, to observe, “School funding decisions are one of the sleeper civil rights issues of our time.” But that statement, from Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Leadership Conference Education Fund, has yet to wake up advocates who believe testing is the civil right issue of our time.

What Civil Rights Violations Look Like On The Ground

North Carolina-based education reporter Lindsay Wagner vividly captures what that withholding of financial resources looks like on the ground.

Writing for the left-leaning organization NC Policy Watch, Wagner reports North Carolina earned an F from the Law Center’s funding fairness report card, and it’s not a surprise given what the state is doing to its schools – especially the ones serving the most disadvantaged students.

“Moving the needle in a positive direction when it comes to school funding is not a trend that has been playing out in North Carolina,” Wagner explains and quotes a school official from one district who attests, ”We’ve lost 50 percent of our teacher assistants during the past several years … Eighty percent of our textbook funding is gone.”

“Students are lucky if they even have textbooks at all,” Wagner reports from another school district in the Tarheel state, quoting a teacher who says, “If we do have them, they are very outdated.”

“Very basic supplies and materials are hard to come by,” Wagner continues in her report from that district. “Paper, pencils, even desks for students to sit at are scarce. Teachers typically pay out of their pocket all year long to make sure their kids have the opportunity to learn.”

Doesn’t this seem like a civil right issue to you?

Our Sad Proxy Battle

Unfortunately, the standoff over standardized testing in Oregon is not an isolated event.

As members of Congress on Capital Hill struggle with revising federal education policy, testing mandates continue to be regarded as some sort of valiant stand for our most underserved students, while deep inequities in how states support those students continue to get ignored.

So what really matters in education policy continues to take a back seat to a sad and ineffectual proxy battle over testing – and our more disadvantaged students are worse off for it.

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