"Community-Based Accountability: Best Practices for School Officials,"by Jason Langberg, Taiyyaba Qureshi & Eldrin Deas March/April 2013 issue of Poverty & Race
Accountability in education must include the idea that school systems have certain obligations to their stakeholders. Traditional notions of accountability are mostly focused on measuring performance outputs of students, teachers and principals, and fail to identify metrics by which elected and appointed policymakers can be held accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, this trend has become even more prevalent as so-called market-based reforms (e.g., expanded high-stakes testing, merit pay, privatization) are adopted on the federal, state and local levels. These policy changes in fact “de-form” democratic principles of good governance and fairness, which require that school system leaders be held accountable to the community. Over the past four years, education policymakers and community advocates in Wake County, North Carolina demonstrated that such accountability is essential to creating a healthy relationship between the school district and the community it serves, and to producing high-quality, equitable outcomes for students.
To promote diversity and student achievement, the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) implemented a student assignment plan in 2000 which minimized concentrations of low-wealth or low-performing students by limiting each school in the district to a maximum of 40% of students eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch and no more than 25% of students performing below grade level. Along with the district’s award-winning magnet schools, the policy made the WCPSS a nationally acclaimed leader in high-quality education. However, the WCPSS also faced significant challenges, including huge achievement gaps, a massive school-to-prison pipeline, inadequate funding, rapid growth and instability in school assignment.
In 2009, a staunchly conservative majority took over the WCPSS Board of Education. The new Board removed the diversity mandate from the student assignment policy and began moving the district to a “neighborhood schools” model that increased racial and socioeconomic segregation. Moreover, new members’ campaign promises to higher-income and predominantly White neighborhoods to dismantle the diversity-conscious student assignment policy gave the public the impression that the Board only sought to please its electoral base instead of engaging in research-based decision-making that serves the interests of all the district’s students. The Board also failed to adequately address repeated concerns about excessive suspension rates and severe racial disparities in student discipline. The Board’s regressive actions and its reluctance to meaningfully engage with advocates soured prospects for amicable political and policy solutions.
In 2010, the first interim student reassignments produced predictable segregative outcomes. Advocates quickly formed a coalition of student and parent activists, education experts and civil rights attorneys who shared a commitment to diversity in education, eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline, narrowing achievement gaps, and holding the Board publicly and legally responsible. This diverse coalition of advocates pushed to hold the Board accountable through several means, including: (1) direct action, such as marches, rallies, pickets and civil disobedience; (2) lobbying by testifying at School Board meetings and communicating regularly with staff and policymakers; (3) public education through media, workshops, publications and regular community meetings; and (4) electoral advocacy.
Further, as the Board continued to resist mounting public pressure to address resegregation and the school-to-prison pipeline, the coalition initiated legal actions, including Title VI complaints to the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education; complaints about special education to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction; an AdvancED accreditation complaint; and individual representation to students for suspension and special education matters. By filing a lawsuit over the district’s violation of North Carolina open meetings laws, the coalition also challenged the Board’s undemocratic, non-transparent governance that made community-based accountability more difficult.
Committed advocates slowly succeeded in making the Board more accountable and responsive to public demand for an integrated and equitable system with fair discipline policies. Strong electoral advocacy resulted in the most conservative Board member—the Chairperson—being replaced and the election of more moderate members willing to engage broader community concerns. The WCPSS also responded to pressure from advocates for more public input by conducting online surveys, holding community hearings and forming special committees. In July 2012, WCPSS passed a resolution supporting diversity in school assignment, thereby demonstrating a commitment to reversing the system’s regression towards high-poverty, racially isolated schools (masquerading as “school choice”). Additionally, over the last three years, suspensions declined, the Student Code of Conduct was revised, and alternative education expanded.
Wake County’s education advocates learned several lessons from this experience. When community concerns first arose, the Board had the opportunity to gain allies through meaningful engagement with stakeholders. Instead, the Board spent years and precious human and financial resources in media and legal battles, rather than working with the community toward a high-quality, equitable education for all students. As education law attorneys and researchers who assisted advocates in the push for community-driven, democratic accountability, the authors offer the following suggestions as best practices for elected and appointed school officials:
1. Commit to honest and comprehensive engagement by reaching out to all segments of the community. Take the initiative to involve stakeholders early in policy development and implementation processes to create trust and buy-in.
2. Act with transparency and ensure due process for discipline, employment and all other grievances.
3. Enact prospective policies to promote equitable student assignment and discipline at the district, school and classroom level for students and teachers.
4. Speak up! Fulfill ethical and professional obligations to promote transparency and equity in the system.
Jason Langberg is an education justice attorney and activist in North Carolina.
Taiyyaba Qureshi is Educational Advancement and Fair Opportunities Attorney-Fellow, UNC Center for Civil Rights.
Eldrin Deas is a PhD Candidate, UNC School of Education. EDeas1@live.unc.edu
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