School Choice Discrimination Leaves No Choice for Vulnerable Students of Color

Published on Dignity In Schools (

By Ernest Saadiq Morris, Urban Youth Justice

The choice before human beings, is not, as a rule, between good and evil but between two evils. -George Orwell

School Choice programs, including school vouchers, charter and magnet schools, are not the egalitarian antidote for the historical inequality and discrimination entrenched within the U.S. public education system.

The term school choice is commonly used by corporate education reformers as a grotesque misnomer to disguise their attempted end-run around the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal recognition in Brown v. Board of Education(1954) of the constitutional right of all children to equal educational opportunity, based upon the absolute rejection of the “separate but equal” concept of segregated public education.

School choice programs encourage privatized outsourcing of public education that increases academic segregation based on race, disability, language and poverty that undermines equal educational opportunity.

Youth of color labeled as “high need” or “difficult” students, i.e., those struggling academically, English learners, and those with special needs or disabilities, are disproportionately excluded by school choice programs, particularly charters that deny them enrollment by cherry-picking students using selective student admissions methods, e.g., screening interviews or assessment tests.

Even after enrollment, no child is safe from selective “student-dumping” attrition, from either deliberate discriminatory pushout practices targeting low-performing or “difficult” students, or deliberate indifference of inflexible teaching pedagogy, such as rigid testing practices, that makes lower-performing students more likely to dropout.[ see March 2011 Report – What Makes KIPP Work? A Study of Student Characteristics, Attrition, and School Finance].

Equally alarming is the ability of school choice programs to disguise their direct causal connection to the academic segregation and isolation of disadvantaged Black and Latino students (i.e., English Learners, students with disabilities, and those with poverty-based needs, e.g., homeless youth and free/reduced lunch qualifiers) away from most white students.

A recent analysis by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA of school choice in San Diego public schools found that school choice, i.e., open enrollment and charters, resulted in substantial academic re-segregation. A local reporter’s coverage detailed how diverse, mixed-race San Diego neighborhoods still contain segregated public schools , because school choice tends to isolate Black and Latino students away from white students. These segregated schools not only fail to reflect the diversity of their surrounding community, but the test-based performance of their segregated student population predictably reinforces the racial achievement gap.

School choice vouchers are egregious enablers of academic discrimination, increasingly promoted with false promises of empowering low-income families to obtain educational equity at private schools paid for by public dollars. However, research often indicates low-income urban public school students benefit less from vouchers than pre-existing private school students that opportunistically subsidize their current tuition with public dollars.

Private voucher schools undermine the financial health of traditional public schools by serving significantly less students with diverse academic and social challenges, largely due to intentional practices by which they conveniently avoid and exclude the students needing the most expensive remedial services or resource commitment. In Milwaukee, private voucher schools’ overwhelming rejection of students with special needs or disabilities was evidenced by only 1.6% of all private voucher school students having documented disabilities compared to 20% within the traditional Milwaukee Public Schools system, resulting in the filing of a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice by Disability Rights Wisconsin and the ACLU.

The systematic rejection of high need students by private school choice programs creates a disproportionate burden on under-resourced traditional public schools, resulting in a defacto separate and unequal dual system of education, that undermines the educational opportunity of all students that remain within an unfairly distorted learning environment.

This intentional, calculated starvation of resources weakens the traditional public schools that educate the vast majority of these vulnerable students. Meanwhile, the intense scrutiny of federal Race to the Top guidelines and test-based performance standards demonizes any lack of progress under this manufactured duress, further justifying the continued privatization of K-12 education and slashing of education budgets.

This cynical process is designed to yield only one conclusion – the traditional concept of free, quality public education must die.

The unchecked proliferation of false school choice programs will usher in a devastating redistribution of public education resources from the largest urban school districts into the hands of private education profiteers, without built-in civil rights protections, public accountability, or transparency to prevent academic segregation based on race, disability, language and poverty. Students of color, whom disproportionately rely upon traditional public education as a lifeline to the American Dream, will find this path to their aspirations abandoned, along with the Brown v. Board legacy of equal educational opportunity for all children.

All in the name of school choice.

Ernest Saadiq Morris is a youth rights advocate, civil rights and liberties lawyer, and founding director of the public education and advocacy initiative, Urban Youth Justice. He has been defeating the school-to-prison pipeline since 2004, including coordinating the largest successful mass student defense to-date (Round Rock, Texas 2006-2007). You can follow Urban Youth Justice daily on Facebook and Twitter.


Special Ed Warehousing: Special Education Means No Education for Many Youth Of Color

Published on Dignity In Schools (
By Ernest Saadiq Morris, Urban Youth Justice

“We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race […] deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.” – U.S. Supreme Court, Brown v. Board of Education(1954)

Corporate education reformers have imposed an unrealistic goal of achieving a standardized “lock-step” performance from diverse student populations that many public school districts have adopted and thus cultivated a toxic combination of pressure and bias.

The pressure from high stakes test-based performance assessments leaves no incentive for teachers and administrators to invest general education class time for individualized attention or to implement diverse culturally responsive teaching methods. Therefore, a student that falls behind academically is at high risk of being labeled and stigmatized as a “slow learner” and falsely placed in special education or an inferior academic track.

As a result, the labeling of youth of color as “difficult-to-teach” as the basis for a special education referral is a far too easy pretext for implicit cultural bias or self-serving classroom management. At-risk youth of color demonstrating verbal defiance, physical aggression or inattention can often be corrected through supports within a general education setting, as well as better teacher training in culturally responsive methodology, instead of special education referrals.

Special education warehousing of Black youth and other youth of color is rampant in too many urban school districts. Special education warehousing is the disproportionate removal of youth of color from general education classrooms through referrals to special education classrooms that segregate them from the student population. Disproportionality occurs when the percentage of Black youth in special education —or a similarly situated special education subgroup, such as Latino/Hispanic English Language Learner students— is not proportionate to their percentage in the school or district’s general population.

This practice is similar to the post-Brown v. Board era practice of discriminatory labeling of Black and Latino students as mildly retarded in order to dump them in segregated classrooms — in an attempt to avoid the legally required integration of public schools. This practice was eventually prohibited by multiple lawsuits.

In Houston, Texas, a Fall 2010 audit commissioned by School Superintendent Terry Grier revealed that a majority of the Houston Independent School District(HISD)’s 16,386 special education students are Black youth. Worse, their placement was based on disproportionate labeling of Black students as mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed. Hispanic English Language Learner students were similarly over-identified for special education placement in junior high and high school grades suggesting that they received inadequate language assistance in elementary grades that resulted in false special education labeling in the later grades.

Likewise, Austin ISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen commissioned a report which found that its African-American students were overrepresented within special education programs. Black youth made up only 12 percent of all enrolled student, yet were identified as 24 percent of students labeled with intellectual disabilities and 33 percent of students labeled as having an emotional/behavioral disability.

In May 2010, the Palo Alto Unified School District was issued a notification letter by the California Department of Education as one of 17 seventeen school districts statewide that had “significant disproportionality” in its special education referrals of Black and Latino youth. For instance, one district middle school placed 55 percent of its Latino students and 33 percent of its Black students in special education in 2009-2010.

Federal law requires that all K-12 students with disabilities receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment. Even for falsely labeled special education youth of color, the denial of that labeled student’s FAPE is a serious matter. Furthermore, special education warehousing of urban youth of color often involves an inferior, non-remedial educational curriculum with uncertified or inexperienced teachers within an isolated and/or segregated environment. The Georgia Department of Education’s 2009-2010 special education annual report verified that African-American students are overrepresented statewide in special education classrooms. According to the report, African-American students make up 47% of students labeled with Emotional Behavioral Disorders and 57%of the students with Intellectual Disabilities. The report also noted that Black students are more likely to be isolated in a special education classroom away from their general education peers. Racially disproportionate segregation is evidence of the denial of the FAPE guarantee to Black special education students and a violation of federal law.

Zero tolerance discipline combined with high stakes testing increases the discriminatory impact of the School-to-Prison Pipeline on the educational results and criminal justice consequences for special education students of color. African-American and Latino students, as well as special education students, each separately face disproportionate rates of disciplinary referrals. Accordingly, special education students of color face dual risk of higher rates of disciplinary referrals for suspensions, alternative school assignments, and expulsions, which correlate to lower graduation rates. Thus, the discriminatory impact of disproportionate special education placement of youth of color not only constitutes denial of a quality education but also increases the risk of referrals to the criminal justice system and future incarceration.

Ultimately, special education warehousing, i.e., the disproportionate placement of youth of color in special education, undermines the post-Brown v. Board meaning and purpose of public education. It is the modern manifestation of the Jim Crow origins of separate and unequal education discrimination that perpetuates race-based structural barriers to equal educational opportunity. Education reform should not be a proxy for the continued marginalization and criminalization of Black youth and other youth of color due to the pursuit of a standardized performance that encourages structural inequality and implicit bias in special education referrals and school discipline.

Ernest Saadiq Morris is a youth rights advocate, civil rights and liberties lawyer, and founding director of the public education and advocacy initiative, Urban Youth Justice. You can follow Urban Youth Justice daily on Facebook and Twitter.