Dreams Yet to Be Fulfilled
With the new year here, there is an opportunity to reflect on what we accomplished in 2017 and what remains to be done to advance educational equity in 2018. It is also fitting that the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday always starts off the new year. The legacy of this great leader fills us with a renewed hope and energy for what we might accomplish in the year ahead, and also provides a framework for our inquiry. We might ask whether we are any closer to fulfilling his dreams and the dreams of the civil rights movement. We might also ask what we still need to do in the months ahead.
Looking back at 2017, there have certainly been some challenges to equity. Early in the year, the Education Department rolled back protections for transgender students to use the bathrooms aligned with their gender identity, rescinded guidelines outlining the rights of students with disabilities, and scaled back investigations into civil rights violations at public schools and universities. However, the bright spot of 2017 is the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which is a law passed by the Obama administration that seeks to provide support and resources to historically disadvantaged schools and students. Nationwide, states are beginning to implement the new law.
In Louisiana, we have seen the beginning of ESSA-related changes, which has provided increased access to critical information regarding students of color, and English as a Second Language and disabled students. Schools are now facing increased accountability for failing to serve those students and for disproportionate rates of suspension. Moreover, throughout 2017 the newly formed State Advisory Council on Student Behavior and Discipline has been meeting and crafting recommendations for comprehensive changes to the school discipline code. They have been laying the groundwork for much-needed changes that will likely happen in the upcoming 2018 session. In summary, we see the state moving in the right direction.
However, 2018 will still require a lot of energy and a lot of work. Louisiana advocates need to remain vigilant in ensuring that the state stays true to its commitment to implementing ESSA. Additionally, while the Advisory Council is working on legislation, it also has not yet received meaningful public input. The advocacy community will have to watch the Council’s proposals carefully and provide feedback, as well as engage with any legislation introduced in 2018 to ensure they are in alignment with key principles of equity.
On a national level, we have to keep fighting for the rights of all students. Legislators promised to hold firm on passing a measure to renew protections for ‘Dreamers’—students and young immigrants who lack legal documentation because they were brought to the United States by their parents when they were very young. However, the legislators disappointed the immigrant advocacy community when they failed to keep this promise this past December. In January we must demand the quick passage of a bill with protections for Dreamers. We have to fight for their dreams of equity too.
Additionally, it seems the Education Department has its eye on a 2014 letter from the Obama administration about school discipline and race, which included instructions for schools to investigate complaints of discrimination related to discipline policies. The Education Department has said it will delay enforcement of a rule related to this guidance. We have to stand firm by pressuring the Education Department to remain committed to alternatives to suspensions.
We certainly have our work cut out for us in 2018. Thankfully we have the wisdom and insights of great leaders, such as MLK, to guide us into this new year and a new challenge. He reminds us we are “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” We have to continue to believe in his dream of equity for all and keep working toward it. In looking back at 2017, we see that change is slow, but it is happening despite the challenges we are facing from the current administration. We will hold steady and strong and put in one letter, one call, and one bill at a time. Then, at the end of the next year, we can look back again, and see that the needle has moved a little farther toward equity and that we are a little closer to fulfilling the dream.