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As the achievement gap in education continues to grow, there are issues that need to be addressed immediately, and among the most critical are the great disparities in resources as well as policy and organizational failures. We, as lawyers, have an opportunity, and, as I see it, an obligation, to step up and step in.
Over the past decade, several school districts have sought to desegregate their schools, believing that this is crucial to providing equal educational opportunities to all students. The Supreme Court in Parents Involved v. Seattle School District placed limitations on how districts can achieve this goal. School districts and advocates are testing the limits and receiving approval from the federal government and courts.
Public charter schools, supported by federal policy, are growing rapidly but still enroll a small portion of students. Though free from some state and local regulations, charters must still comply with federal education laws, but there is evidence of some problems. Research does not reflect impressive achievement results in the aggregate, nor a tendency to spur innovative practice, but there are examples of high-achieving, innovative schools.
Alabama’s controversial immigration law, H.B. 56, takes the issue of immigration into the classroom by requiring public schools to inquire about the immigration status of students and their parents. The discriminatory effect of such questioning has resulted in drops in attendance of Hispanics, ultimately violating children’s right to education. Several states have avoided provisions aimed at education to distance themselves from the example set by Alabama.
Education is in constant flux, driven by studies that reform efforts and shape policies and law at the local, state, and federal levels. Today, there is an interesting dichotomy between the states continuing to live under the No Child Left Behind Act and those taking the Obama administration’s modified approach, ESEA Flexibility. Only time will tell which states—and students—will fare better.
The dream of Brown v. Board of Education for equal educational opportunity for all American children remains deferred. Applying an international human rights framework to promote an affirmative right to education emphasizes the need for government to eliminate discrimination and provide access to quality education for all children.
School and colleges are continually under fire for alleged failures to safeguard their students’ and faculty members’ free speech rights. Administrators must partake in a balancing act to avoid a showdown at their institution. The policies and practices of a public institution or school district need to honor discourse and use free and open debate—not disciplinary proceedings—as the remedy for unpopular speech.
Fifty years after the Supreme Court decision in Bolling v. Sharpe, the District of Columbia Public Schools continue to be plagued with racial isolation, substandard educational opportunities, and decrepit facilities. But change is taking place as district lawyers—using litigation, public advocacy, and partnership with individual D.C. public schools—lead efforts to address the state of D.C. public schools.
John Payton will be remembered as one of the most brilliant and successful lawyers of his generation. A civil rights lawyer who successfully argued cases before the Supreme Court, his legacy extends to the extraordinary contributions he made locally, nationally, internationally, and to the legal profession.