THE CHALLENGE OF WINNING IN EDUCATION ADVOCACY

I went to law school with the hope of helping people. My grand vision of justice includes using the knowledge and privilege I gained in law school to give a voice to those who are never heard in spaces of influence. Education law yields that space for me. As a civil rights attorney focusing on education equity, I work with parents and students who are fighting for access and fairness in educational services. In my work, I feel firsthand the impact that elevating their stories has on their outcomes. In a bureaucratic system charged with serving so many, too often students and parents are silenced behind regulations and protocols without a meaningful opportunity to be heard. It is in this space that I have found that my voice could help so many of our students and families who are silenced in the education system.

However, the adversarial model of the law challenges me as I think about long term solutions for our public education institutions. Simply put, when students, families, and educators are pitted against one another, nobody wins.

STUDENTS DON’T WIN

With respect to the discipline process, it is clear that students, especially students of color, lose big across educational institutions. In the 2009-2010 school year, over 3 million children across the nation lost classroom time because of exclusionary discipline; enough children to fill every major league football and baseball stadium in the country. As an advocate taking on cases one-by-one, I continue to be haunted by a troubling rhetoric that surrounds our young people as we justify cutting them off from educational services:

“We are making this decision because we have to hold our students accountable.”

A necessary element of accountability is that people are in relationship with one another and possess self-awareness of how their actions impact others. How does a student develop this self-awareness when they are disconnected and rejected from the school community for mistakes and poor judgment? Is this not precisely what we are supposed to be teaching them?

“We have to think about the other students.”

So often in education, we must balance the interests of the many against the interests of the few.  However, the danger comes when we narrowly focus our conversations around equality without a deeper understanding of equity. Even when we distribute resources evenly, the reality is that some of our students need more resources and supports just to be able to meaningfully access an equal opportunity for success.  This can include the need for more chances to learn from their mistakes or more support to develop strategies for conflict resolution and self-regulation. Unfortunately, too often discipline conversations are centered on separating struggling students from their peers. The effect of this is that we arbitrarily cut off all our students from important lessons of empathy and inclusion for others.

“We can’t do anything because this family does not care about their student’s education.”

It is understandably very difficult to work with students when it seems their parents and families are not supportive. However, lack of parental engagement should not be a mark against the student. Our challenge is to meet students where they are at and hope that we can help them rise above circumstances that are beyond their control.

“This student has forfeited his right to a public education.”

This continues to be one of the most unsettling statements that I have heard coming from a school administrator to justify a decision to deny a student educational services. Does a child who is still learning who they are and how the world works possess enough knowledge and understanding to make informed decisions? Instead, the indictment is on us in that we have forfeited our obligation to provide this student with a public education.

What is most troubling about these statements is that they often precede a decision to remove a student from the same space that promised to teach and care for them. For many students, this becomes yet another experience of broken promises and rejection. This experience mangles their prospects for a successful future in such a way that few are able to recover. Instead, many fall prey to the school to prison pipeline which leaves them exposed to the criminal justice system, in a vicious cycle of poverty, and further disengaged from society.

SCHOOLS DON’T WIN

The school community does not win when it makes a decision to remove a student from the educational setting. When students are pitted against their teachers and administrators a relationship is broken. Although there is a popular narrative that strict discipline has a deterrent effect on other students, it also has the residual impact of destroying trust between students and adults. This is the type of trust that is needed for students to open both their hearts and minds to the safety and instruction of adults. Removal from school makes it harder to rebuild trust for students who do have the fortune of returning back to their school one day.  The student that returns is inevitably not the same student, because without intentional supports, he is left with the trauma of being rejected from his school community and classified as an outsider. This is one reason why discipline can often be looked to as an indicator of whether a student is at risk of dropping out.

In many ways, my job is to look for the bad actors and protect students from unjust systems and practices.  However, this is deeply complicated in the education system, which has multiple layers of competing interest that create unintended consequences for even the most well-intentioned teachers and administrators.  Pressures involving increased performance standards, lack of resources, changing political regimes, labor disputes, and much more all underlie the education ecosystem. Add in devastating incidents of school shootings, growing conditions of poverty, rising levels of violence and exposure to trauma, and systemic racial injustices that continue to destabilize communities.  In the midst of all of this, how can we definitively point the finger at the source of the problem?

I am challenged by the fact that I believe litigation to be one of the most destructive forms of intervention, and recognize can be a necessary and effective tool to make meaningful change. Litigation firmly pushes people who likely have complex perspectives on any given situation to take a firm position on one side or the other. It is about exposing one another’s weaknesses to elevate your own position, which can destroy the very relationships we work so hard to create in education settings. Even still, there are times when the injustice is so great that nothing else will do. After all, it was Brown v. Board of Education that catalyzed the dismantling of racial separation in schools.

HOW DO WE WIN?

As big and impossible as these issues seem, I remain steadfast in my belief that we can and we must win for our children and generations to come. For me, winning is about not only equipping our students with the tools they need to be productive in their careers, but also preparing our young people to join us in carrying the same torch for justice that we inherited from our ancestors and forefathers. Today the challenges in our society are formidable: the wealth gap between blacks and whites has nearly tripled over the last 25 years; minority and low-income students continue to attend and complete college at far lower rates than their peers; this country carries 25% of the world’s imprisoned population; Americans with lower incomes and educational levels report higher rates of disease, disability, and poor health; and the list goes on. Addressing these challenges will continue to require intergenerational efforts. We truly lose if our children are so disconnected, disengaged, and skeptical that they can no longer see a community worth fighting for.

Thus, my grand vision of justice has not changed much. Although I continue to be challenged on any given day in the execution, my goal is to empower those who bear the brunt of societal inequities and whose potential may be the most challenging to access. I believe this is the type of advocate our children need and deserve. As I take on the challenge of winning, I ground myself in these core values:

  1. Operate from a fundamental understanding that we are a community. We are inextricably linked to one another and the successes and failures of our students are on us.
  2. Commit to changing hearts and minds. Changing policy and laws is important and necessary work, but along the way, we must invest in the human spirit with the hopes that we are building a community that is committed to seeing the work through.
  3. Do the work in love. As sappy as it may sound, I simply don’t see a win without it.

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Candace Moore is a Surge Fellowship Alumna and a dedicated civil rights attorney advocating for education equity through a lens of racial and social justice at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She was instrumental in the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee’s re-launch of the Educational Equity Project. Candace’s work has focused on organizing legal advocacy resources to address disparate school discipline and barriers to enrollment for students throughout Chicago and its surrounding communities. As a next generation civil rights advocate, she believes that it is imperative for members of the legal community to work in partnership with community-based reformers and institutional policy makers to achieve sustainable and meaningful solutions.