Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Strange New Rights in Education Law

The continual expansion of rights in contemporary legal theory leads to some pretty bizarre policy suggestions. Among the looniest that I have seen recently comes from Derek W. Black (pictured here), Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Education Rights Center at Howard University School of Law.  In an article in the Boston College Law Review (you can see the abstract and download the article here),  Black takes note of the fact that students who are surrounded by middle-income peers in school tend to do better than students who go to school with lower income peers. Further, he observes, correctly, that poor and minority students are more likely to go to school with lower income peers than with those with middle incomes.  On this basis, he essentially argues that middle income peers are a "resource" that school districts allocate. Therefore, poor and minority students have a constitutional right to an equal share of middle income peers. That's correct - the children of the poorest of the poor have the constitutional right to the influence of your children.

In this command and control line of thinking, the middle income students themselves are simply educational commodities, to be passed around by government.  Decisions lie not at the level of individual families, but at the level of bureaucracies that decide how to allocate people, as well as funds. My own research has supported the common-sense view that when middle-income people are treated by a school system as "resources" to be exploited for the sake of the least advantaged, those middle-income people tend to leave the system. They are not, of course, just resources to be distributed by government mandate, but people in families that seek their own best interests. And it is certainly not in the best interests of middle income families to see their children "allocated" among those who can contribute least to a healthy educational environment.

1 comment:

  1. I only read the abstract, so I probably shouldn't claim too much here, except to note that this kind of language (students as "resources" to be "allocated") speaks volumes about the ideology from which it stems. Such is the language that emerges from an academy that always foregrounds large groups and systems rather than individuals and families.

    Of course, beyond that critique, one could easily construe his preferred policy as mildly racist in and of itself: minority students need to be surrounded by middle-class whites to be successful? (I'm not sure that I would construe it this way myself, though.)

    Also, I'd be curious to see how Black makes sense of the fact that "students who are surrounded by middle-income peers in school tend to do better than students who go to school with lower income peers" and that "poor and minority students are more likely to go to school with lower income peers than with those with middle incomes", meaning they don't do so well. This is murky, complex territory, and, based on the policy he prefers, I don't think that Black appreciates the complexity. There is, I'm sure, a statistical correlation between being white/middle-class and doing well in school. But, as any freshman philosophy student can tell you, correlation does not equal causation. Does Black suggest that school success is an effect of being white/middle-class? Is there some kind of educational osmosis that is supposed to occur when a minority school is injected with whites? Or would it lead simply to a situation in which a school's scores improved thanks to the white kids but the minority students' scores didn't change at all? (This would look good for the schools' average scores, of course; it might even get some of them taken off the state's bad list, but all this policy does is redistribute the problem so it no longer looks like a problem.)

    Finally, I'm wondering how Black deals with the reality of SAT scores as they correlate to race (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2012/04/standardized-test-scores-math-and-verbal/). He writes that "the racial inequality in access to middle income peers within districts is vast and corresponds with dramatic shifts in achievement gaps, a core indicator of constitutional violations in school finance litigation." I'd have two questions for Black here: 1) If racism is structural (as I'm assuming, perhaps wrongly, that he assumes), how does he make sense of the fact that Asians consistently outperform or match their white peers? 2) If access to "middle income peers" (notice how he drops the racial qualifier there) is the key to balancing the scales of social justice, would middle-income blacks or Hispanics help do this? Or does he mean specifically WHITE middle class peers? Or, given the SAT data, would he prefer ASIAN middle class peers "allocated" into urban black-majority schools?