The Import of Civil Rights Talk in Education
After the RISC summer meeting, Ocean State Policy‘s Brian Bishop elaborated on his specific objection to the commentary of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist with respect to civil rights. The following is the relevant segment of her talk (stream, download, 42 sec):
In particular, our students whose families are poor, who are black, Latino, whose first language is a language other than English, who have special needs, those children in particular are not being served well, and in fact, we have some of the highest achievement gaps in the country. The gap between the students who are poor or children of color and the gap between our white students who are children of needs is so dramatic that they are among the highest in the country, and that is completely unacceptable. And it is a violation of the civil rights of those children. And in addition to that, it’s not good for any of us.
I certainly support, you’ll forgive the pun, the gist of your remarks, but I did take exception to the characterization of Rhode Island as violating the rights of any of its citizens with regards to education. I mean, with modest exception, this is a white-bred audience, and I certainly appreciate that it’s appropriate to challenge people here to embrace the larger social contract in the state, but I think that the specific characterization is of the sort that has Ms. Sotomayor on the ropes at this moment, over remarks of convenience that were intended, I think, not to speak to a legal specificity. So, I think that’s a very unfair and unwise characterization of the current situation in education.
I took Gist’s invocation of “civil rights” as essentially a broad moral mandate, and I think that’s how she intended it. The context against which Brian meant to caution was the legal implications of that invocation, whereby, in his words, the courts end up “running the schools” as a remedy to invidious discrimination. It’s definitely a reasonable point to make, and Ms. Gist’s flat response of “I disagree” suggests that, like me, she didn’t discern what Brian was saying.
In my view, the introduction of civil rights into the equation by the state education commissioner is a distraction. Our system is failing, and it’s tautological that disadvantaged groups will feel the effects disproportionately, particularly as they require their schools more fundamentally. Minority groups, therefore, are an indicator of our deeper problems, and I’m not persuaded that the new commissioner appreciates what those are.