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"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.  

  • Solicit diverse viewpoints by engaging with the whole community—across geographic, age, socioeconomic and racial groups. Even in systems with district-based elections (rather than district-wide elections), each Board member should be conscious of needs across the whole district. Avoiding the impression that the Board serves particular interest groups creates trust in the Board as a body with the best interests of all children at heart.

  • Provide regular, open, diverse forums (e.g., online and phone surveys, public hearings, community meetings and task forces) to solicit feedback from stakeholders, rather than relying only on time-constrained public comments at regularly scheduled meetings. Short time limits may increase meeting efficiency, but more importantly, they frustrate advocates and prevent the Board from hearing the whole story.

  • Involve students, parents, knowledgeable community members and trained educators in both the creation and implementation of policies and practices, including significant financial decisions. This will help the Board create evidence-based policies, promote community buy-in and avoid the impression that the Board is making political decisions without adequate consideration of or to the detriment of students.

  • 2. Act with transparency and ensure due process for discipline, employment and all other grievances.
  • Develop and implement transparency policies, including requirements for open meetings, adequate notice, publicly available and timely copies of Board materials, thorough and quickly-released minutes, and prompt and easy access to public records.

  • Be sensitive about scheduling important meetings during times and places where stakeholders can attend. Some Boards rotate meeting times and locations and repeat important hearings to attract parents and students with inflexible work or transportation schedules. Anticipate interest in issues and choose venues that have size and sound capacity to allow everyone to attend and hear. Provide daycare and translation to facilitate full engagement.

  • Enact and comply with policies for fair dispute resolution and appeals for employees and students, including grievances, suspension and expulsion appeals, misconduct by law enforcement officers and security officers assigned to schools, and special education.

  • 3. Enact prospective policies to promote equitable student assignment and discipline at the district, school and classroom level for students and teachers.
  • Implement policies that position a district to succeed with a high-quality, racially and socioeconomically diverse educational experience at every school. Setting up schools, teachers and students to succeed in this way enriches the educational experience, reinforces community engagement and prevents legal confrontations.

  • Implement policies and practices that prevent the push-out of students, such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, ample support services (e.g., psychologists, social workers and mentors), restorative justice and high-quality alternative education.

  • Employment policies, including recruitment, benefits and fair grievance procedures, must be tailored to attract and retain highly-effective and culturally-sensitive teachers and administrators.
  • Seek advice from law firms or organizations qualified to objectively advise the Board on legally sound, equity-based policies, not just risk management. Given the Supportive School Discipline Initiative (a joint effort of the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice), voluminous research from civil rights organizations, recent Title VI findings, and the December 2011 “Guidance on the Voluntary Use of Race to Achieve Diversity and Avoid Racial Isolation in Elementary and Secondary Schools,” school districts have clear legal and policy paths to create diverse, fair and safe educational environments.

    4. Speak up! Fulfill ethical and professional obligations to promote transparency and equity in the system.
  • Even if representing minority viewpoints, Board members and administrative staff should not be afraid to voice their opinions and “blow the whistle” when necessary, including when budget cuts and resource starvation force them into a position of violating the law. Courage, integrity and honesty are essential to accountability and to the struggle for equity.

  • 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.

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