Civil rights groups’ education proposal misses the mark

Patrick Gibbons

President Obama's education reform agenda appears to be crumbling under the combined assault of teacher unions, civil rights groups and fellow Democrats.

In early July, the teacher unions gave a vote of "no confidence" to the administration's Race to the Top education reform. Meanwhile, Democrats, led by Rep. David Obey, sought to siphon money away from the grant program to simply sustain an already bloated education monopoly.

Now several civil rights groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Urban League and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, released their own "reform" plan, criticizing several key elements of Obama's education reform agenda.

The proposal recognizes the large achievement gap between whites and children of color and between wealthy and low-income students, and it agrees something must be done. Indeed, both low-income and Hispanic/African-American fourth-grade students are already two grade levels behind their white and higher-income peers.

The civil rights groups make several decent recommendations, including supporting evaluating teachers with student testing data and expanding the public-school choice element in No Child Left Behind. However, some of the recommendations are unfortunate, and actually likely to leave racial minorities and low-income children worse off.

First, the coalition advocates increasing spending in education — although virtually no evidence suggests increasing spending will produce better results. From 1970 to 2007, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending nationally increased 134 percent. During the same 37 years, fourth-grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) increased a mere 6 percent. Significantly, in just a single decade, Florida made a bigger achievement gain, of 9.7 percent.

Furthermore, the group incorrectly claims Race to the Top (RTTT) grant money takes resources away from "loser" states. The RTTT funds are above and beyond the regular federal subsidies to K-12 education — a reward for embracing meaningful reforms. Spending more money simply rewards mediocrity and failure.

Another policy proposal from the group that doesn't work is universal pre-K. Research demonstrates that pre-K has few, if any, long-lasting benefits. In fact, a recent report on Head Start, published by the federal government's Department of Health and Human Services, found virtually no long-lasting benefits after the first grade. While certain studies find that students benefit from early-childhood education programs, these reports are based on very expensive programs, such as Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian Project. There, services include home visits and free medical care — elements far beyond any fiscally realistic proposals for public pre-K today.

Finally, the report criticizes the use of charter schools, claiming there "is no evidence that charter operators are systematically more effective in creating higher student outcomes nationwide." Such a statement is patently false, suggesting at best bad research.

The civil rights organizations cite the CREDO charter-school study from Stanford University, a report that Stanford Professor Caroline Hoxby has argued contains a serious statistical error. Not a random assignment study, CREDO generates apples-to-oranges comparisons by contrasting the achievement of students in charter schools (most of which are located in urban cores with many minority students) with all students in the metro area (including affluent white students where few charter schools are located). Even this report, however, notes that low-income and English Language Learners benefit from charter schools.

Far more rigorous studies, which examine the results of students randomly placed into charter schools or traditional public schools, consistently find that charter-school students perform as well as or better than their peers in traditional public schools. Caroline Hoxby's research on charter schools in New York City demonstrates that charter schools significantly reduced the achievement gap between low-income and high-income students. At least four other random-assignment studies prove charter schools outperform traditional public schools. A study by Marcus Winters demonstrates that traditional public schools improve when faced with competition from charter schools.

In the end, the coalition of civil rights groups recommends more policies that don't work than policies that do. Sadly, the group is silent on reforms like the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and Step Up For Students, two school-choice programs that help low-income kids afford private-school tuition.

The deafening silence suggests the report may be driven more by politics than by a genuine desire to help low-income and minority children succeed.

UPDATE: The National Action Network, NAACP and Urban League have withdrawn their support of the critical education framework presented last week. Al Sharpton claims they still have "concerns" over education policy, but that the framework was "prematurely released."

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more information visit