In his most recent comments about education in the United States, and in a sampling of the rhetoric that will soon come from both parties as the presidential debates loom over the horizon, republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney pronounced that inequity in education is "the civil rights issue of our era." This statement is an echo of the sentiments expressed by President Obama a year ago when he also said that "[education] is the civil rights issue of our time."
This positioning of educational inequities as a civil rights issue has been a part of the discourse for decades among educational researchers and experts lamenting the increasing educational gaps among youth from different race and class backgrounds. However, the most recent publicizing of these civil rights issues, and their visibility in the political sphere warrants some attention.
Last week, Mitt Romney released a paper outlining his education plans, and then visited a charter school in West Philadelphia, populated by urban youth of color, to tout his new message of civil rights in education for those who have been "denied an education" in urban schools.
As Romney walked the halls of the urban charter school, met with students and teachers, and provided sound bytes from his new education proposal, it became clear that there are certain messages about his urban education plan that those of us with a vested interest in the education of urban youth must pay attention to. This was made even more clear as he repeated these points during a number of speaking engagements where African-American and Latino voters gathered.
1) "As president, I'm going to give the parents of every low-income and special needs student the chance to choose where their child goes to school."
Romney's blind support of charter schools is indicative of a greater societal problem. The reality is that just because a school has their students in uniforms doesn't mean they're doing any better than neighboring public schools. The question of why charter and private schools are being endorsed so heavily should be paramount among those who have a vested interest in urban education.
Is the intent to send a message about the fact that all public schools are bad and all alternatives that have roots/connections to privatization are good? If all public schools are indeed bad, what does that say about all the students in these schools and how they are viewed by politicians? Is there any truth to the fact that parents will have unlimited school options or are they limited to a "choice" of privately funded or charters that are often unproven as far as student success is concerned and are often experiments in how to engage urban youth? What implications does traveling hours away from their home have on youth, especially when they end up the only person of color in a school with affluent classmates who often don't want them there to begin with? Are they viewed as "the bad kid from public school"?
Urban educators who ask these questions are NOT against ALL charter/private schools. In fact, I am not. However, I am against a narrative that is supported by a political campaign that presents public schools as beyond repair and charters/private schools as the only viable alternatives.
2) "For a single mom living in a shelter with a couple of kids -- those kids are at an enormous disadvantage... trying to help move people to understand, you know, getting married and having families where there's a mom and a dad together has a big impact."
The statement above was made during a speech where Romney advocated for teaching youth who attend schools in impoverished neighborhoods about the benefits of two-parent families. While this may seem like a good idea by many, the assumption that socioeconomically disadvantaged populations choose to have children out of wedlock, and need to be taught to want the "traditional American family" with a "mom and dad" is problematic. First, it does not consider the larger societal biases that result in higher arrests for black/brown males that overwhelmingly affects sustaining "traditional" families in these communities. Furthermore, it does not consider the different models for family that are, and can be, perfectly functional.
3) "... it's not the classroom size that drives the success of school systems."
The statement above has been repeated in many different forms by Romney in defense of his belief that classroom size is not a factor in student success. In his reasoning, he mentions education systems across the globe that have huge class sizes and still manage to be successful. This certainly does not mean that we should make our classes bigger or consider class size a non-factor in education achievement. It's important to consider that the private schools that Romney attended, and the ones his children attend, have small class sizes.
In essence, the Romney campaign is saying that class sizes in public schools can be as large as possible, while those in private schools will remain small. Both kinds of schools will then be compared to each other. This appears to be a deliberate effort to sabotage certain schools, and sends a strong underlying message that blindly supports a privatization of schools.
4) "... if school was a business"
Recent speeches by Romney have discussed his new education plan by making problematic comparisons between education and running a business. This has been a piece of much recent rhetoric on education which suggests that students are products to be manufactured, that teachers are workers that can and should be replaced by less expensive ones if possible, that schools should be for-profit enterprises, and that the entire enterprise can be led by business managers. Each of these notions does not consider that education is completely different from a business. Students are human beings and teachers are experts who develop their skills over time and should be compensated accordingly. A school's main goal should be should meet the students individual needs, not to make a profit. Most importantly, those who lead schools MUST have experience in education.
5) "Eliminate unnecessary certification requirements that discourage new teachers."
In any profession where people have the responsibility to give care to others, it is imperative that those who have this charge are properly certified for their job. The suggestion that teacher certification examinations should be eliminated, essentially means that the Romney camp believes that anyone can walk into a school, and begin teaching students.
In public schools, it is imperative that teachers receive certification. In many cases, they must continually take classes, have at least a master's degree in their field, and take ongoing courses that include topics such as identifying child abuse while also improving their content knowledge. In many charter and private schools, teachers do not necessarily have to be certified. The hiring of non-certified teachers allows the institutions that hire them to pay low salaries (based on their lack of experience), and in the case of for-profit schools, increase their financial bottom line. This stance takes no consideration for the effects that poorly trained teachers have on student outcomes.
Romney's "A Chance for Every Child" is no different that Bush's "No Child Left Behind." Both phrases tug at the heartstrings of the public, but the initiatives themselves are poorly constructed, laden with misconceptions about the nature of teaching and learning. This plan has no respect for teachers and public schools and treat the most vulnerable of our youth like commodities to be assessed, tested, and sold to private companies. Perhaps the real civil rights issue of our time is the politics of rhetoric, and the way that slick political campaigns function to demonize urban youth, pretend to extend a hand via privatization of schools, and concurrently ensures that the needs of urban youth are not met in the schools they are currently in.