Equity, Social Justice, and the Politics of Education

September 10, 2018

As children and young adults around the country begin to prepare for the new school year, politicians and officials are planning the curriculum from which they will learn. American politics and the education system, although very different in nature, are actually intertwined. In the words of Dr. Catherine Lugg, GSE professor in the Educational Theory, Policy and Administration department, “It’s the oxygen. You can’t have an American public system without politics because it’s a public system.” So, what does this mean for the influence of politics on education and equity? Dr. Benjamin Justice, GSE professor and chair of the ETPA department, had this to add, “currently, there is no constitutional mandate for the federal government to protect the right to an education or to provide an education. It is a state right and a local right, but it’s not federal right.”

In the current political climate surrounding education and education policy, this revelation can affect the ways in which access and equity is distributed between states, counties, and even individual schools themselves. Understanding the layers that exist among education, politics, and equity means also understanding the history behind this intersection. “Politics have always played a role in education in this country. But the difference is that the locus of politics has changed. When Americans first started building the public-school systems in the 19th century, they tended to be the result of a bottom-up social movement; people chose to support local public schools,” said Justice.

When looking at the state of education and equity in the present, Lugg stated “It’s always an interesting time. If you look at the state constitutions, almost every state has a provision within it saying that the children residing in the state are entitled to a thorough and efficient public education. New Jersey has historically had a very good public-school system. Even the urban schools that struggle, I would argue, are better than many other states. It isn’t distributed equitably, but we are in a better place than most.” Some areas of inequity in the public-school sector include LGBTQ rights and mass incarceration.

The experiences of LGBTQ individuals in the American school system have been a hot-button topic of discussion. “Right now, it’s an interesting time in that except for issues of civil rights, the federal government has retreated on protecting LGBT students as well as ensuring that disabled students are treated right and have their rights honored by districts.” Lugg, an expert in this respect, elaborates. “Back in the 1920, a better understanding of human sexuality emerged, and you had the rise of sodomy laws, where same gender consensual sexual behavior was made criminal. This targeted everybody who was lesbian, gay, bisexual—and by implication—transgender. Because sodomy was a felony, you couldn’t hold your teacher’s license or your administrative license. So, in the law literature you became what was called a “statutory felon” because your identity was criminalized. In teacher prep programs in the 80’s when I was an undergraduate, there were these witch hunts for suspected queer educators (probably a reaction to the HIV/AIDS crisis). In my junior year a colleague got pushed out. She was student teaching and the head of the music education program pulled her out of student teaching, flunked her for student teaching, kicked her out of the music department and kicked her out of school, just on the mere suspicion that she was lesbian. That was 1984. So, the incentives to ‘pass as heterosexual’ were very strong when going through teacher education.”

Mass incarceration, in the education context, works alongside the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ an area of expertise for Justice. “The school-to-prison pipeline is a metaphor that we use to describe the relationship between schools and prison. It used to be, and in fact is still today, that one of the main purposes of education is to keep people out of prisons. So, when you use the metaphor ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ it really gets people’s attention because that’s the opposite of what we think schools are supposed to do. But it turns out that there are a set of practices that schools engage in - you could call them junctions in the pipeline - that actually make it more likely for kids to end up incarcerated. If schools lose kids to dropping out, for example, the kids face an enormous risk of ending up incarcerated, particularly if they come from particular demographic backgrounds. The incarceration rates in the United States are disproportionately skewed towards African Americans, Latinx Americans, and poor people. As it turns out, within schools there is also this disproportionality in the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Public education exists in part to create good citizens. School policies on student identity and discipline can have strong effects on the civic education that children receive. Lugg and Justice agree that teacher preparation should include civic education. “All of our students are required to take some basic coursework in civic education. Students get preparation in thinking critically about the role that schools play in society and questions about justice and fairness and opportunity for all students,” stated Justice. Lugg added, “It would be great not only if we talked to our teacher candidates and make sure they understood what civics was, what it means to be a good citizen, but our administrative candidates as well. It’s incumbent upon all of us that children grow up to be wise citizens. It’s important.” Justice explains, “school shouldn’t be risky. It should be where children go to learn how to behave and engage in citizenship. Schools shouldn’t be a place where you make a mistake and face lifelong consequences for those mistakes.”

Bringing about change in a deep-rooted institution such as the American public-school system is difficult, but not impossible. “In my classes I encourage my students to talk with their colleagues. Sit down and just talk with folks about what would you like to see. If it’s going to be effective you have to work with your colleagues and work through your communities for change. It’s not easy. Do your homework, go to the principal, go to the board, and if you have evidence and support, they’ll give your argument serious consideration. But you also have to be patient,” stated Lugg.

Justice teamed up with several colleagues from different disciplines across the university to create the Rutgers Initiative for Education and Justice. “We started that initiative as an opportunity to bring together people across campus and across New Jersey who are doing work at the intersection of K-12 education, higher education, and juvenile and criminal justice. One of the things that we are interested in is finding ways to keep kids out of detention centers and finding ways to give them opportunities to go to college and participate in higher education. Some of that work is about research. A lot of the people in our group are researchers, so they are interested in researching different aspects of different problems. Others in our group are actual practitioners who are designing programs and who work in schools and other institutions who are trying to make a difference in this area.”

“I think we as a society oftentimes forget that a society is defined by the quality of its mercy, not by the quality of its punishments. If we are serious about education being for everybody and criminal justice being about justice, then we would be less interested in destroying lives and more interested in helping people integrate back into society to make us all better and make our institutions stronger. That’s how I think politics should intersect with education.”

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