2007: Equal Educational Opportunity: What Now?

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Center for Educational Equity

Equal Educational Opportunity: What Now?

11/12/2007 ~ 11/13/2007 at Cowin Center, Teachers College

Welcome to Teachers College and the Third Annual Symposium of The Campaign for Educational Equity, cosponsored this year by Columbia Law School. For this year’s symposium, “Equal Educational Opportunity: What Now? Reassessing the Role of the Courts, the Law and School Policies after Seattle and CFE,” we had three distinct but related purposes.

The first was to consider the U.S. Supreme Court decision this past June that struck down voluntary racial balancing plans in Seattle, Washington, and Jefferson County, Kentucky. What are the implications of that ruling, which culminates a steady retrenchment of the federal courts from promoting school desegregation and the vision of equal educational opportunity their predecessors proudly announced in Brown v. Board of Education more than a half-century ago? What options remain open for pursuing school desegregation, and what options are now truly closed? And to what extent can we still look to federal law to promote equal educational opportunity? A critical focus here is the federal role in special education—particularly the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). If, indeed, the federal courts are turning away from the issue of desegregation, IDEA reminds us that there is still continuing and dynamic federal activity in areas such as protecting the interests of special education students.

Second: We sought to explore in depth the education adequacy litigations which have been filed in dozens of states in recent years and in which plaintiffs have proved enormously successful, prevailing in over 70 percent of the final decisions. If, as some have said, the adequacy litigation in the state courts is now truly “the only game in town” for broadly ensuring equal educational opportunity, how should we conceptualize and promote a model of success in these cases? How can we ensure continuing success—both in the courtroom and in the subsequent stages of implementation—in such litigation?

And finally, to bridge our separate emphases on the federal and state court roles, and to seek new horizons for equal educational opportunity, we needed to ask probing questions and consider new concepts of equity both within the courts and beyond. While there can no longer be any doubt that “money matters,” is there a way that we can both ensure adequate resources for all students and also revitalize a national focus on integration by incorporating racial balance issues into the remedies in adequacy litigations? Do we need to re-conceptualize our concepts of democracy and merit? Can we borrow successful ideas from other areas of education—for example, the notion of an individualized Education Plan (IEP) in the IDEA—and apply them more broadly to ensure meaningful educational opportunities for all students?

These are not merely questions of the day, but issues that will shape the future of education—and in indeed, of our nation—for decades to come.