What constitutes a healthy learning environment for primary school children? And will race-based admissions and President Joe Biden’s student debt relief plan survive Supreme Court scrutiny?
By Sunita Sohrabji
Education rights are under attack, especially for children of color and transgender students, said a group of panelists, exhorting Congress and the courts to step in and ensure equal access to quality learning.
Panelists discussed several issues which are being challenged in the courts: whether race should be considered as one of several factors in college admissions; President Joe Biden’s student debt cancellation program; book bans and the controversy surrounding the teaching of critical race theory. They also discussed inclusion for disabled students, and the importance of early childhood education.
The administration’s student loan relief program — which would provide debt relief for over 40 million working and middle class Americans by forgiving up to $20,000 in debt — has been challenged by a coalition of Republican-led states, which state that the required public period was not offered before the program was scheduled to be implemented. Lower courts have ruled in favor of the states and issued an injunction on implementation. The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments in the case this February.
Student Debt Relief is Essential
“The COVID-19 pandemic was an unprecedented health, social, and economic crisis. The Biden Harris Administration student debt relief plan is an urgently needed moral and lawful response, said Genevieve ‘Genzie’ Bonadies Torres, Associate Director for the Educational Opportunities Project of the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights Under Law at the Jan. 18 news briefing organized by Ethnic Media Services.
“Without this relief, millions of borrowers would be pushed past the financial brink when student loan repayments restart. And among them are millions of borrowers of color who we know have been hardest hit by the pandemic. This foreseeable spike in default would debilitate the credit of millions of borrowers, blocking their ability to pay for basic necessities and preventing them from securing affordable housing, among other adverse outcomes,” she said.
Almost 50 percent of Latinx borrowers and 25 percent of Black borrowers stand to have all their student debt eliminated by Biden’s plan, noted Torres. Students of color have roughly one-fifth of the generational wealth of their white counterparts and therefore are forced to take on more student loans, she said.
Race-Based College Admissions
The Supreme Court is also expected to issue a ruling on race-based admissions this June. Students for Fair Admissions has brought about two cases, one against Harvard, the other against the University of North Carolina.
Chief Justice John Roberts, Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito were dissenters on a similar case in 2016. Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch are also expected to rule against race-based admissions.
“We’re not talking about quotas. What we are talking about is the limited consideration of race as one of 40 factors in the UNC case and one of more than 100 factors in the Harvard case,” said Michaele Turnage Young, Senior Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“All students deserve a fair shot at getting a quality education, regardless of their income, where they grew up, or their racial or ethnic backgrounds,” said Turnage Young. “But unfortunately, while talent is everywhere in our country, opportunity is not. Too many students of color must contend with systemic and interpersonal racism that detrimentally affects their educational opportunities.”
Inclusive School Environments
“It is important that colleges and universities continue to be allowed to consider the full context of applicants experiences, including the way that racism artificially depresses the prospects of many hardworking, talented, Black, Latinx, native and underserved Asian American students, so that everyone has a fair shot,” she said.
Panelists also discussed what constitutes a healthy school environment.
“We know that education policy decisions must be informed by the values, priorities and experiences of marginalized people, ” said Liz King, Senior Director of the Education Equity Program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Check Identity at the Door?
“For too long, people of color, native people, LGBTQ people with disabilities, immigrants, religious minorities, English learners, girls, low income people, and other marginalized people have had their stories told by someone else. Their opportunity to attend a school that is warm, welcoming, and that prepares them for the full exercise of their social, political, and economic rights has been denied,” said King, who moderated the Jan. 18 discussion.
“No one should be asked to check parts of their identity at the door. Everyone should see themselves and their communities reflected in the curriculum and instructional practices,” said Morgan Craven, National Director of Policy, Advocacy and Community Engagement at the Intercultural Development Research Association.
Critical Race Theory
Craven spoke about classroom censorship, the targeting of systemically marginalized students and communities, and challenges to schools diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
We know from 50 years of education policy research and teacher training work that culturally sustaining schools — places where every student feels welcome — are key to student success.
Several states have banned the teaching of critical race theory, including: Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Seventeen more states have bills moving through their legislature to ban CRT, loosely defined as the teaching of systemic racism at all levels of society, from housing to employment, healthcare and more.
Craven’s remarks came ahead of the news curve: a day after the briefing, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued a statewide ban on an advanced course teaching African American history. Florida is hardly alone: Between July 2021 and June 2022, according to PEN America, Texas school districts banned 801 books in 22 school districts, the most of any US state. Most of the banned books focused on racial history and sexual identity. Craven said she expected to see more such activity this year.
Restraint and Seclusion
AJ Link, Policy Analyst at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network noted the threats at school settings to students who are disabled, non-binary, or of color. He laid out eight principles of creating healthy school environments, which include addressing childhood trauma, enhancing protections against harassment and discrimination in schools, and eliminating school based law enforcement.
Link spoke about the practices of restraint and seclusion: police handcuffing a child who may merely be having a temper tantrum, or teachers actually sitting on misbehaving students. Restraint and seclusion tactics are disproportionately used on marginalized students, he said.
“I really hope that we start viewing children as children, instead of threats to be afraid of. And that we support and invest in our children in a loving, caring, supportive way, instead of acting like being a child is automatically some type of criminal activity,” he said.
Early Childhood Education
Whitney Pesek, Director of Federal Child Care Policy at the National Women’s Law Center discussed the importance of early childhood education, and expanding programs for access by low-income families.
“For the early care and education sector, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare and exacerbated the deep inequities of a system that relies on families paying unaffordable sums, early educators being paid poverty level wages, and too many communities across the country lacking sufficient workforce or facilities to meet early care and education demands,” said Pesek.
She noted that in more than half the country, infant care and early childhood education cost more than attending college. And many families pay more for ECE than they do for rent.
Moreover, few subsidies exist. Rural families live in ECE deserts with an insufficient supply of licensed day care options.
“Children under five years old are the most diverse generation in United States history, so investing in high quality, affordable care and education also advances racial equity,” said Pesek. “It is a racial and gender justice imperative to address these deep inequities in the United States early care and education system,” she said, calling for robust investment at the federal level.