Are Lower School Achievement Levels A Civil Rights Issue?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, we will meet the breakout star of the hot Netflix television series "Orange Is the New Black." Her name is Laverne Cox and she's changing the game for women actresses in a way that you might not expect. That's later in the program. Speaking, though, of expectations, we're going to begin the program today with a story about education and race. Florida's Department of Education is under fire for a plan that sets race-based goals for increasing student achievement, with higher proficiency levels expected for Asian-American and white students, and lower goals expected for black and Hispanic students. Supporters of the policy say it sets realistic targets for student performance, but as you might imagine, the plan has many critics and it's now facing a legal challenge.
The Southern Poverty Law Center partnered with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and has filed a complaint with the Department of Justice, arguing that Florida's race-based education goals violate the Civil Rights Act. Joining us now to hear more about this is Jerri Katzerman. She's the deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the lead attorney on this case. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
JERRI KATZERMAN: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Let's hear more about the plan before we get started. Florida's plan sets multiyear goals. In reading, it calls for 90 percent of Asian-American students to be at grade level by the year 2018, 88 percent of white students, 81 percent of Hispanic students and 74 percent of black students. Now what justification has the department offered for setting the goals at these levels?
KATZERMAN: Their justification, to my understanding, is that the baseline for these youngsters is low. So therefore, we will set low expectations for them.
MARTIN: You can see why just on its face, just on a gut level, many people would find this ridiculous. But you're saying it's not just kind of offensive or disturbing, that it's - you think it's illegal, and why would that be? Why do you say that it violates the Civil Rights Act?
KATZERMAN: The state has drawn race-based lines and - for what they hope they will accomplish for children. It's simply based on race. It's not based on any other factors other than the state is attempting to release itself from the punitive consequences of No Child Left Behind. This isn't about providing resources or strategies or anything else that would help children actually meet any goal. It's simply about moving the goal post so that it's easier for the state to say that it's made progress.
MARTIN: Well, the defenders of the plan have said - and once again, I want to mention that we did ask for somebody from the department to join our conversation and they declined. But that in defending the plan in other venues, they argue that in order to meet the reading goals, that educators would still be required to bring African-American achievement, on average, up 30 points, versus just 19 points for white students, and that they are setting the expectations high.
KATZERMAN: If you can bring Asian-American children and white children up to 92 percent and 88 percent, we ask the question, why not all children?
MARTIN: The argument that some people might make, though, in defense of this is that there - that, for whatever reason, there need to be strategies targeted to different groups just because, for whatever reason, the overall scores are what they are, and that you need to have different strategies for different groups to meet them where they are. What would you say to that?
KATZERMAN: Strategies, sure. Teaching methods, absolutely. But decades of research tell us that expectations govern outcomes, and if you expect less, that is what you will get.
MARTIN: How did your group become aware of this?
KATZERMAN: Well, this is part of Florida's strategic plan, and it was voted on in October in public by the Florida State Board of Education. So we certainly became aware of it at that time, but this is set to go into effect this school year. So it was important that we bring the Department of Justice into it, we ask for scrutiny regarding this practice and that, frankly, we say at the beginning of this school year that this is not the message that we want to send to children of color in the state Florida.
MARTIN: On the other side of it, just pressing the case once again, I think that there are people who would argue that affirmative action, essentially, does the same thing. I mean, that civil rights groups, civil rights leaders have been vociferous in defending affirmative action. And some people argue that civil rights - that affirmative action, essentially, does the same thing. It looks at students according to their race and says that given these circumstances, there are certain challenges that you may have faced, which may lead to certain outcomes and even if those outcomes are different than for other students, we're still going to view you in a certain light. And they argue, in fact they did argue before the Supreme Court that affirmative action is, essentially, doing the same thing: Setting race-based expectations for students.
KATZERMAN: And I would disagree with that. What I would say those cases are about is promoting diversity, and saying that youngsters of different backgrounds have much to bring to a university or a college setting and that should be but one factor that we look at in admissions policies. But what Florida has done, again, is created wildly divergent expectations, simply on the basis of race, and it's done so without any real pedagogical reasons for that other than acknowledging that the baseline is low.
MARTIN: What's the next step here? As you mentioned, your organization filed a complaint with the Department of Justice. What happens now?
KATZERMAN: Well, the Department of Justice will be reviewing that complaint. The state of Florida will have an opportunity to answer that, and we hope that what comes out of this is that the department and the state have an opportunity to resolve this and that the state is persuaded to rethink its position and to revisit its plan.
MARTIN: Jerri Katzerman is the deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. We reached her at her office in Montgomery, Alabama. Jerri Katzerman, thank you so much for speaking with us.
KATZERMAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.