Justice & Charity: Feeding the Hungry & Homeless

For much of my life, when someone who lives on the street asks me for money, I have faced a moral quandary.  On one hand, I am fortunate enough to have the funds to provide the spare change being sought.  On the other hand, I have concerns that my spare change will be used for drugs or alcohol, and not for the bus ride or food which the person claims she needs.

Over the past few months, I have developed a new response for these requests for my spare change.  Since these requests are usually made in a populated area with retail stores and restaurants nearby, I respond by telling the person that if he is hungry, I will gladly buy him a meal in a nearby restaurant or store.  Unfortunately, my skepticism about the use of such funds has often been verified when the person asking for my money refuses my offer to buy him a meal.

However, yesterday, when I stopped to fill up my car with gas, a young man approached me for money for food.  I informed him that I needed to finish filling up my car with gas, but if he was hungry and willing to wait until my car’s gas tank was full, I would buy him a meal in the gas station’s convenience store.  He patiently waited for me outside the store and when I was done filling my gas tank, I asked him if he wanted to pick out a sandwich and a drink, and he agreed to  do so.

Interestingly, when I went in the store with him, both the cashier and the manager asked me if I needed help, but did not ask him.  However, they kept a careful eye on him, as I suspected they were concerned he might be a shoplifter, until I informed them that I was going to buy him a sandwich and a drink.  Both seemed pleased at my effort.  Once I paid for the sandwich and drink, he gladly enjoyed his meal and hopefully for a brief time, was no longer hungry.

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In my Jewish upbringing, I was raised with both the concepts of tzedek (justice) and tzedakah (charity), which in Hebrew come from the same root word.  My nearly 3 decades as a civil rights attorney have been in the constant pursuit of justice.  A recent article discusses the biblical roots of these words and concepts.  As the author states:

Tzedek (justice) and tzedakah (charity) are clearly linked, and not only linguistically. At its essence, tzedakah is not about handouts to the poor compelled by pity or obligation; at its core, tzedek is not about deciding disputes in court. Both are about righting the wrongs that are all too pervasive in our world.

Sometimes systems change is personal.  Yesterday I found success in providing charity with justice.  I hope to find many more such successes as I continue to offer a meal to those who tell me they are hungry.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Transformative Justice & the Broken Chair

Perhaps it is fitting that one of the areas about which I am most passionate in my work, is the area of school discipline since I suffered under its yoke quite a bit, particularly in junior high school, when I received dozens of detentions (often for foul language) and was once suspended for “gross disrespect.”  Having experienced a lot of school discipline first hand, I learned quite intimately how poorly applied school discipline only served to make me angry and taught me to disrespect those applying inane punishments (e.g., 1000x of writing “I will call my gym teacher Mr. Dressler.”).  Fortunately, I also learned when appropriate discipline served to teach me an important lesson, allowing the teacher the regain control of the classroom, assure safety, and earn my respect.

When I was in 4th grade, attending Dewey Elementary school, in Oak Park, Michigan, a lower-middle class predominantly Jewish suburb bordering Detroit, I had my first African-American teacher, Mrs. Blackmun.  She was an excellent teacher and I have many fond memories of that year.  However, I had one unfortunate habit which was leaning back on my chair. Despite Mrs. Blackmun’s repeated admonitions to stop doing that for fear that I might fall and hurt myself, I simply could not break my habit of leaning back, which of course resulted in periodic falls, thereby disrupting the class, with new warnings from Mrs. Blackmun.

Towards the end of that year, I fell backwards in my chair one last time.  On this occasion, the back of the wooden chair broke and left a rough wooden edge.  I knew that I was in trouble and meekly awaited my punishment.  At that moment, Mrs. Blackmun showed her utter brilliance by announcing that my punishment was simply that I would continue to sit in the broken chair for the rest of the year.  No suspension, no trip to the office to be scolded by the principal, no parent meeting to shame me, and no requirement to pay for a new chair, which obviously at that age, I could not afford.  Her punishment not only fit the crime, but it was truly transformative because due to the jagged edge, I simply could no longer lean back in my chair and potentially fall backwards, hurt myself and disrupt the class.  To Mrs. Blackmun, I owe my undying gratitude as her brilliant punishment taught me that it is possible to transform a misdeed into a life long lesson that I have carried with me ever since for nearly 45 years.

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A recent article discussing both restorative and transformative justice defined transformative justice as follows:

With the term transformative justice, it is more blatantly clear that we wish to not only provide restitution to the victim, but that we want to improve the overall situation for the victim, the offender, and the community.

With the schools to prison pipeline continuing to explode, more educators should heed Mrs. Blackmun’s lesson and seek to apply transformative justice in their schools and classrooms.  The chairs may not get repaired, but the students’ lives will be transformed in a positive manner.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

Read my Lips: Charter Schools are Public Schools & Must Comply with Civil Rights Laws

The battle lines have been drawn in the education reform movement.  There are those who would privatize as much of our public education through vouchers as possible, and they are strongly opposed by those who defend public education at all costs.  As is often the case, when the vitriol gets louder, confusion reigns, and in education reform, confusion has reigned supreme in the charter school arena.

Many who oppose school privatization oppose charter schools, despite their potential for innovation,  because they believe that charter schools are just another vehicle for privatizing and therefore destroying public schools.  Fortunately, the US Department of Education (USDOE), has made perfectly clear that charter schools are public schools subject to all federal civil rights laws.  In a guidance letter issued by the USDOE’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) on May 14, 2014, it was made abundantly clear that,

These laws extend to all operations of a charter school, including recruiting, admissions, academics, educational services and testing, school climate (including prevention of harassment), disciplinary measures (including suspensions and expulsions), athletics and other nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, and accessible buildings and technology.

The guidance letter specifies 4 key federal laws that apply to charter schools:

  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin;
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (prohibiting discrimination based on sex); and
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (prohibiting discrimination based on disability).

The OCR letter states that a separate guidance letter will be issued in collaboration with the USDOE’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS) to address charter schools’ obligations to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Eduction Act (IDEA).

Some key provisions of the new guidance letter are:

  • Charter schools may not discriminate in admissions.  This includes:

Charter schools must ensure that language-minority parents who are not proficient in English receive meaningful access to the same admissions information and other school-related information provided to English-proficient parents in a manner and form they can understand, such as by providing free interpreter and/or translation services.Also, communications with parents with disabilities must be as effective as communications with other parents. Appropriate auxiliary aids and services (such as Braille materials or a sign language interpreter) must be made available whenever they are necessary to ensure equally effective communication with parents with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities.

Of course, this means that charter schools may not have admissions criteria which discriminate on their face.  But, in addition,

a charter school may not use admissions criteria that have the effect of excluding students on the basis of race, color, or national origin from the school without proper justification. Charter schools also may not categorically deny admission to students on the basis of disability.

  • Regarding children with disabilities, OCR makes clear that,

every student with a disability enrolled in a public school, including a public charter school, must be provided a free appropriate public education–that is, regular or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet his or her individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met. Evaluation and placement procedures are among the requirements that must be followed if a student needs, or is believed to need, special education or related services due to a disability. Charter schools may not ask or require students or parents to waive their right to a free appropriate public education in order to attend the charter school. Additionally, charter schools must provide nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities in such a manner that students with disabilities are given an equal opportunity to participate in these services and activities.

  • For English Language Learners,

charter schools must take “affirmative steps” to help English-language learners overcome language barriers so that they can participate meaningfully in their schools’ educational programs. (emphasis supplied) A charter school must timely identify language-minority students who have limited proficiency in reading, writing, speaking, or understanding English, and must provide those students with an effective language instruction educational program that also affords meaningful access to the school’s academic content. Federal civil rights laws do not, however, require any school, including a charter school, to adopt or implement any particular educational model or program of instruction for English-language learners; schools have substantial flexibility to determine how they will satisfy their legal obligations to meet these students’ needs.

The latest guidance on charter schools also affirms that the prior guidance issued by the USDOE jointly with the US Dept. of Justice on discriminatory school discipline also applies to charter schools.  As I wrote about previously, this guidance is an important step in stopping the schools to prison pipeline.

Of course, laws are only as good as their enforcement, so it is good that OCR ends its guidance by providing a link to its contact information and complaint form.  It also provides its toll free number and e-mail address: (800) 421-3481 & ocr@ed.gov.  OCR is clearly inviting complaints if charter schools violate the law.  It will be up to advocates to make sure that OCR honors its commitment to enforce the law if violations occur.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Stop Paternalizing Children with Disabilities

In the many years I have advocated for children with disabilities, I have frequently encountered those who purport to care so deeply for children with disabilities (rarely their own) that they support methods of care and support and even legislation that purports to protect these children, but when analyzed more closely, does a great disservice to these children by preventing them to live as fully and independently as possible.

My advocacy has included combatting paternalistic policies and practices including segregating children with disabilities in separate schools, which prevents them from making friends with non-disabled children who will help them with sustaining networks in their adult lives.  Even worse, is institutionalizing children with disabilities under the guise of protecting them, but ultimately ruining their chances to live free and independent lives.

It has recently come to my attention that under the guise of helping students with disabilities, Louisiana’s legislature is proposing 2 bills that would undermine those children’s access to a quality education.

House Bill No. 993 contains the following highly damaging provisions:

  1. Waives the requirement that students with disabilities must meet state and local performance standards in order to graduate high school;
  2. Waives the requirement that students with disabilities must pursue the same “rigorous curriculum required for his chosen major by his school as approved by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education,” as all other students.
  3. Waives all state and local graduation requirements for students with disabilities.
  4. Waives the requirement that students with disabilities (along with all other students) must read at the “approaching basic” level on either the English/Language Arts or mathematics component of the 8th grade state assessment, as well as the other objective criteria established by the local school district, in order to be promoted from 8th grade to 9th grade.
  5. Waives the requirement that students with disabilities (along with all other students) who score at the unsatisfactory level on the state assessment, must complete a summer remediation program in that subject area in order to complete a high school major in that subject area.
  6. Provides that all pupil grade progressions for students with disabilities shall be determined by the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team.
  7. Provides that if a pupil with disabilities meets her IEP goals, she can receive a high school diploma.

House Bill No. 1015 goes even further down the road of degrading the education of children with disabilities in the name of protecting them.  It would:

  1. Exclude children with disabilities from the same grade promotion standards as all other children and simply allow their IEP team to determine whether to promote the child to the next grade.
  2. Excludes all state and local assessment scores from children with disabilities from the state’s accountability system.

While some may believe that these provisions serve to protect children with disabilities, my experience has demonstrated otherwise.  If these bills pass, Louisiana will be able to graduate its children with disabilities after 12th grade, even though federal special education law clearly allows students with disabilities who need up to 3 more years of education to receive those critical additional years of education.

Furthermore, these bills will make it impossible for parents of children with disabilities to determine how well their school districts are educating their children.  Parents and advocates of children with disabilities fought long and hard for the federal law provision that requires schools to educate children with disabilities in the general curriculum.  These bills take Louisiana down the road of a separate and unequal education for children with disabilities.  This is particularly troubling because the vast majority of children with disabilities are of average or greater intelligence.  Why take those students out of the the accountability system unless Louisiana simply wants to wash its hands of its responsibility for them?

The National Center for Learning Disabilities published an excellent report about the low graduation rates of children with learning disabilities (who by definition have average or greater intelligence).  That report reveals that Louisiana has the 2nd worst graduation rate for such children in the nation (only Nevada is worse).

This graph shows how badly Louisiana’s students with disabilities are faring when it comes to graduating from high school.  As you can see it fares poorly in comparison to both national and other state data.  Indeed, currently more students with disabilities drop out of high school in Louisiana than graduate.

HS graduation rate graphIf these bills pass, Louisiana will look like it is graduating the most students with disabilities even though it is providing less education to them.  Parents and advocates of children with disabilities cannot allow this to happen. Indeed, my fear is that if it happens in Louisiana, your state could be next.  For that reason, national disability advocates should weigh in to oppose these problematic bills.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.