Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Carl Kaestle

I am a historian of American education. I have written about the origins of public education in America, and about the federal role in education. I have served on various groups that deal with education policies, such as the Board on Testing and Assessment, where I first met Bill Taylor and Chris Edley. For the past four years, I have been working with a group of bright postdocs who study “national and federal strategies of school reform.” I am also in an informal study group led by led by Lynn Huntley of the Southern Education Foundation, considering possible constitutional mandates for equal educational opportunity. What we learn at this conference will enrich that work.

Much of the growth of federal education initiatives has been driven by concerns about equal opportunity. Recent retreats from those concerns are discouraging but not surprising. Using schools to equalize opportunity is instinctive but not easy. And equal opportunity has always had to compete with other powerful motives such as moral education, cultural hegemony, and reproducing the social structure.

In the current climate, the chances for reversing Rodriguez or passing a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal educational opportunity seem remote. Nonetheless, it seems well worth the effort to prepare the ground for some later judicial traction and to keep press arguments that might lead states, and even the federal government, to create policies that would serve equal educational opportunity.

What are the biggest obstacles? First, popular opinion and the current political culture. On balance, the country is not in the mood for expansive and expensive policies to treat people equally. Second, the courts. One might say that the first, more diffuse obstacle causes the second more palpable judicial barriers. It’s hard to change the root cause, but we can do research, develop arguments, and seek allies to soften that resistance.

Toward those ends, I hope to hear more about two concepts at this conference: First, the concept of a “popular constitution,” within which many Americans believe that people have “a right” to equal educational opportunity; and second, Goodwin Liu’s emphasis on the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as an approach to the reconsideration of Rodriguez.

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