Journal of Educational Controversy


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How Can We Align Educational Reform with the Purpose of a Democratic Education?

In the article, Is This What Democracy Looks Like,” published in our Fall 2011/Winter2012 issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy author Deborah Meier (2012) considers how current educational reforms may actually resist democracy. In this discussion, Meier identifies the purpose of a democratic education as “to prepare all of our students without exception to become members of a smart ruling class, while also living productive, socially useful and fully human lives” and asserts that current reform efforts are ineffective in achieving this purpose. “Democracy Left Behind,” a report from the University of Colorado Boulder by Kenneth R. Howe and David E. Meens (2012), also reveals the ways in which current reform efforts fail to meet the needs of a successful democratic society.

Aligning Educational Reform with a Deliberative Democracy

By, Celina Meza
Editorial Staff, Journal of Educational Controversy

In the report, “Democracy Left Behind” Howe & Meens discuss the consequences of No Child Left Behind (No Child Left Behind [NCLB], 2001) through the framework of Amy Gutmann’s (2004) concept of deliberative democracy. A deliberative democracy is a society in which citizens play an active role in deliberation, critical discussion and decision-making, of the policies that govern them. 

In terms of educational policy, there are three main principles that constrain a deliberative democracy:
  1. Non-repression—freedom from interference and freedom to engage in deliberation. This takes the form of local control in decision-making, in which communities collectively determine the policies that govern them.
  2. Non-discrimination—the prevention of exclusion or denial of entire groups of children, especially in passive repression.
  3. The democratic threshold—a standard of equality in which all children are permitted to an education that prepares them with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to engage in democratic discussions and decision-making. 

In 1983 a report from the U. S. Department of Education titled “A Nation at Risk” warned that the current public education system was contributing to “a rising tide of mediocrity” (A Nation at Risk, p.1) that threatened the global economic competitiveness of the U. S. Prompted by rhetoric around the perceived achievement crises, in the 1990’s NCLB was presented as a solution to hold local school districts accountable to nation-wide education standards. 

NCLB enacted two policies to hold schools accountable: Standardized testing and public school choice. With standardized testing, all students are tested on the basics in reading, writing and mathematics. Based on student test results, Title 1 funds sanctions and rewards. Districts that do not meet standard are required to provide Supplemental Educational Services (SES). The first step of SES goes to funding third party tutoring (for example, Sylvan Learning Center). Next, districts are encouraged to take corrective action in firing staff and administrators and adopting new curricula. If test scores still don’t rise to standard, districts must offer an alternative school choice. School choice originally grew out of conservative advocacy for local control in the 1960s in the effort of fighting racial desegregation. Now, under NCLB, school choice gives parents the option to exit schools they are unhappy with to attend others and makes schools subject to market competition. In addition, failing schools may be reconstituted as charters under private management.

NCLB did not arise out of concern for closing the equity gap, but rather out of concern for the achievement gap, thereby shifting the focus from helping areas in high need for the sake of equity to raising the nation-wide achievement for the sake of national competitiveness. So it is no surprise that Howe & Meens find that the policies of NCLB fall outside of the principles of a deliberative democracy in a number of ways. 

First, the implementation of standardized testing threatens the principle of non-repression immediately by removing the power of deciding upon standards out of local control. Next, democratic power is taken away from local communities through corrective action under SES when communities cannot determine their own needs. Local control is also threatened by school choice when third party private businesses and philanthropists come in to manage charter schools.

Second, the principle of non-discrimination is threatened by the method of sanctions and rewards based on standardized testing and by exclusion caused by school choice. Unsurprisingly, schools in wealthier areas test higher than schools in low-income areas. It is also true that schools in low-income areas tend to have large populations of historically marginalized groups such as Black and Latino Americans. “Democracy Left Behind” reveals that though urban schools are in disproportionate need of help, they comprised only 27% of the schools that received funds and 90% of the schools that received sanctions. In addition, Howe & Meens suggest “test-based accountability creates a perverse incentive for schools to allow and even encourage low-performing students to leave” (p. 8). The pressure of accountability and inequity of funding has contributed to increased dropouts, suspensions, and expulsions in historically marginalized ethnic groups. Thus, in an effort to close the achievement gap, standardized testing has resulted in passive repression that furthers the equity gap between the historically marginalized and the dominant.  

Though school choice has the potential to foster democracy, the way that school choice is implemented is not democratic: Howe & Meens find that school choice actually exacerbates segregation. When school choice in not uniformly offered in all communities, it does not give parents equal opportunity to exit one school to attend a better one. In addition, the current implementation fails to ensure the protection of marginalized and historically disadvantaged groups. As a consequence, parents with power can figuratively hijack school choice to advance their own children—thus furthering segregation between the historically advantaged and the marginalized.

Third, the democratic threshold is threatened by restriction of curriculum in order to teach to the test and by segregation caused by school choice. With the threat of corrective action under SES, teachers are pressured to design their curricula around what have been called the basics, those topics that will be tested. However, the basics do not cover the knowledge and skills necessary to be an active citizen. For example, a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center concludes, “across the country, state educational standards virtually ignore our civil rights history” (as referenced in Howe & Meens, 2012, p.12), though this part of our history is essential knowledge for all American citizens in a deliberative democracy. In addition, we must have diverse and integrated schools to dialogue across differences and develop the skills and dispositions necessary for democratic deliberation. School choice that leads to segregation limits the democratic potential of the context in which children learn. 

In conclusion, Howe & Meens offer four recommendations to better align educational reform with the purpose of a democratic education:
  1. Provide additional support for staff, parents, and community to get involved in schools in need rather than implementing sanctions.
  2. Focus the curriculum to content and skills necessary for democratic citizenship rather than curriculum that teaches to the test.
  3. Hold accountability through democratic procedures (such as elected school boards), rather than through privatization of public resources in SES and school choice.
  4. Ensure access to equal educational opportunities and diverse context for learning by including enrollment constraints as part of school choice policy. 


Gutmann, A. (1999). Democratic education. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Howe, K. R., & Meens, D. E. (2012). Democracy left behind. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy  Center.

Meier, D. (2012). Is this what democracy looks like? A personal retrospective . Journal of Educational Controversy 6(1), Retrieved from 

National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983). A nation at risk. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office.

No Child Left Bbehind Act of 2001. 107 P. L. 110. 115 Stat. 1425. 2002 Enacted H.R. 1

Southern Poverty Law Center (2011). Teaching the movement: The state of civil rights education in the United States 2011. Montgomery, AL: Southern Poverty Law Center.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Latest on the Federal Court Decision on the Banning of the Mexican-American Studies Program in Tucson, Arizona

Editor:  Readers will remember our article titled, "The Hypocrisy of Racism: Arizona's Movement towards State-Sanctioned Apartheid," by Augustine F. Romero, from our Fall 2011/Winter 2012 issue of the journal. Since its publication, we have tried to keep readers updated on the events in Arizona that resulted in the banning of the Mexican-American Studies Program in the schools of Tucson, Arizona.  A decision from the federal courts has just come down on March 8th.  Here is a link to the decision, Acosta v. Huppenthal .  Essentially, the law, HB 2281, was upheld except for one provision that barred courses "designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group."    The court upheld other provisions of the law that bar courses promoting the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote racial or class resentment, and those that advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals. 

 We provide both a press release from the Save Ethnic Studies website about a possible appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and a statement from the Office of the Attorney General.

Statement from Save Ethnic Studies Website:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Monday, March 11, 2013


Law Offices of Richard M. Martinez

(520) 327-47-97

SES Statement on Tashima Ruling: The Path Forward

Late in the afternoon of March 8, 2013 Judge Tashima issued the long anticipated ruling concerning the pending motions for summary judgment. The motions were initially submitted in 2011 and argued in March of 2012.

The plaintiffs' motion sought to invalidate HB 2281 (A.R.S. § 15-111 and 112) as unconstitutional because it is impermissibly vague and overbroad, precluding speech and infringing students' "right to receive" under the First Amendment. Although Judge Tashima recognized that the students' First Amendment rights in the classroom were at stake, and found one provision of the statute unconstitutional, A.R.S. § 15-112(a)(3) - "classes designed primarily for pupils of a particular group ethnic group", the decision left intact the remainder of the law that was used to prohibit the teaching of Mexican American Studies in the Tucson Unified School District.

The Acosta/Arce case is not over. The immediate task is to decide what is the next step: seek reconsideration of the decision or file an appeal to the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That decision will be made within the next few days. It was always understood that this case would end up before the Ninth Circuit, and we have been preparing for this inevitable step for the past year. We have assembled a legal team that includes professors from the Seattle University Law School and the Bingham McCutchen law firm. Their contributions to the appellate process will be invaluable.

Once an appeal is filed, briefing will be submitted by both sides and a hearing will occur. This step will likely take about 18 to 24 months. The legal process is never as quick as we all hope for. This is especially true when important constitutional rights are at stake.

The effort to invalidate HB 2281 will continue. Too much is at stake. The right of every student to learn and teacher to teach the history, literature and culture of Latinos in Arizona is currently prohibited. Mexican American Studies proved to be a valuable educational program that instilled students with a positive academic identity. Much better academic skills, grades, graduation rates along with increased matriculation to college consistently occurred in every year the program was offered.

The mandate to successfully educate every student irrespective color, gender, culture or economic status is in crisis. As a nation we have failed miserably to reach this goal. We can and must do better. Ethnic studies provide a critical curricular option that must be available to every school district to consider, implement and maintain.

HB 2281 is the product of fear and a profound misunderstanding of the role of culture, language and history. These are areas of learning that do not divide us as a nation but provide a vehicle to promote understanding, respect and success. We cannot allow this fear to spread to other jurisdictions and eliminate important programs that already exist or the development of new programs.

The American dream has always included the universal hope that our children do better than we did. Irrespective of color, gender, culture or language every student must have the right to know who she is and how she fits into our complex and challenging society.

The path to obtain and maintain our civil liberties is continuous. In this lucha we all move forward. Your support is vital. Stand with us united in our common effort to be make our nation "a more perfect union".

The educators, students and community of Save Ethnic Studies.

Statement from the Office of the Attorney General:

Attorney General Tom Horne Wins Federal District Court Case Against Tucson Ethnic Studies Program

Phoenix (Monday, March 11) – Arizona’s law prohibiting courses that teach ethnic solidarity, rather than treating other students as individuals, was upheld as constitutional in a Federal District Court ruling issued Friday. The law was held to be constitutional, with one minor exception, Section (A)(3). The case was personally argued by Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne in Federal District Court in Tucson.

In a statement Horne said, “This is a victory for ensuring that public education is not held captive to radical, political elements and that students treat each other as individuals - not on the basis of the race they were born into.”

Enforcement of the law resulted in cancellation of Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American Studies Program after an independent Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that the program presented material in a “biased, political, and emotionally charged manner.” The ALJ also stated: “Teaching in such a manner promotes social or political activism against the white people, promotes racial resentment, and advocates ethnic solidarity instead of treating peoples as individuals.”

The State law prohibits courses if they violate any one of four prohibitions, including “promote resentment toward a race or a class of people”, “are designed primarily for peoples of a particular ethnic group”, or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of peoples as individuals.” The Court found only “designed primarily for peoples of a particular ethnic group” to be unconstitutionally vague, and upheld the other standards under which Tucson’s Mexican-American Studies Program was eliminated.

The Statute was challenged on numerous grounds, including violation of free speech, and unconstitutional vagueness – they were denied. The Court held that the State’s legitimate concern here was to reduce racism, as set forth in the declaration of policy in the statute that states: “The legislature finds and declares that public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not to be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people.” The Court found that the prohibitions in the statute are reasonably related to the goal of reducing racism at the schools.

In a related action, another Federal Law Judge had issued a ruling in the Tucson desegregation case calling for the development of culturally relevant courses, an Order that has been appealed by Attorney General Horne. However, that Order also stated: “The State is free to enforce its laws as it did in 2011 when it took action against TUSD for Mexican-American Studies courses, if it believes any culturally relevant courses developed and implemented in TUSD violate state law.”

Office of the Arizona Attorney General

Saturday, March 9, 2013

School-to-Prison Pipeline Issue Now Online

We are pleased to announce that our special issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy on the School-to-Prison Pipeline and the School-to-Deportation Pipeline is now online at:

Readers are invited to contribute a rejoinder to any article in this issue.