Letitia James is wrong on opting out
Chris Stewart | 4/21/2016, 6:24 p.m.
New York City’s Public Advocate Letitia James sends a tone-deaf message on educational protests that threatens to hurt Black and Latino children most.
This week, millions of students across America will adjourn from their regular primary school classes to take standardized exams in reading and math. These tests are designed not only to gauge proficiency levels among individual students but also to determine the effectiveness of instruction at schools while holding teachers and school administrators accountable for student performance. In a shocking and disappointing move, James recently issued a public statement that essentially condoned the controversial practice of “opting out” by parents who choose to prevent their children from taking these standardized tests. The practice of opting out has become a version of educational protest of the worst kind, and to have New York City’s second highest ranking elected official come out in tacit support of opting out sends a horrible message that threatens to set a dangerous precedent.
The movement toward opting out has been fueled mainly by white suburban parents and teacher unions. The former group, usually from well-funded and high-performing areas, essentially promotes this practice while being blind to their own privilege. On the other hand, most of the teachers and teachers unions in favor of opting out are seeking to skirt responsibility and avoid concrete measures of their effectiveness. Although their motivations may differ, the effects of opting out are generally the same and have the potential for a disparate impact on a very specific group of learners: Black and Latino children from underserved school districts.
Federal and state funding can be withheld from school districts where the percentage of students who do not take the exams rises to certain levels. The districts that would be hurt most are often the ones that can afford it the least. Those districts are already struggling with failing schools that enroll hundreds of Black and Latino students who have few quality school options in their areas.
What’s worse is New York’s well-publicized and troublesome history with opting out. Despite a substantial number of students—an estimated 240,000 last year—across the state whose families chose to allow their children to sit the tests out, only 2 percent of the students who opted out were from New York City. If school districts in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where there are significantly higher numbers of Black and Latino students, lose funding, they can thank the 98 percent of those who chose to opt out from the suburban comforts of Westchester and Long Island, both of which have much better funded schools—and wider options for families—to begin with. Other leaders, such as Al Sharpton, have pondered the question of opting out for our community’s schools and haven’t fallen for the rhetoric many of its proponents attempt to advance.
As public advocate, James is undoubtedly aware of New York’s history of opting out and the potential consequences it has for New York City schools. It is shameful and deplorable that from her official seat, she would steer families away from a practice that promotes teacher and school accountability, as well as high standards of learning for our kids. Other proponents of opting out insist that the threat to withhold funding is a bluff and criticize the common core method upon which the tests are based. But no single method of education reform is without flaws. Until we make greater strides perfecting this system or inventing a new one, why should we jeopardize valuable and necessary resources of the students and schools that arguably need it most, particularly when they are not the ones typically responsible for putting that funding at risk?
The discussion on opting out contains strong underpinnings of race, class and privilege. This fight is brought on mostly by groups who will never feel the real effects of what opting out can do to our schools and who are ultimately empowered to remove their children from failing schools and place them in better performing ones without major inconvenience. Conversely, these tests are one of the best available barometers to determine what—and who—is really working in our schools for our kids.
James has an otherwise stellar career as an elected official and public servant who has always done right by communities of color. It’s terribly unfortunate that she has gotten this fight wrong in such a major way. Opting out is not the way to go.
Chris Stewart is director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, a non-partisan communications organization dedicated to building support for student-focused improvements in public education from preschool to high school graduation.