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Just whose rights do these civil rights groups think they are protecting?

A dozen civil rights groups this week issued a statement contending that parents opting their children out of high-stakes standardized tests are harming at-risk students. That sparked a response from the Network for Public Education, saying that high-stakes standardized tests are hurting these young people, not the opt-out movement. You can read both statements here.

Here’s a different look at all of this, by Wayne Au, an associate professor in the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington Bothell, and an editor for the social justice teaching magazine Rethinking Schools. Most recently, with Joseph J. Ferarre, he co-edited the book, Mapping Corporate Education Reform: Power and Policy Networks in the Neoliberal State. His research interests include critical analyses of high-stakes testing, critical educational theory and practice, curriculum studies, and multicultural education.

By Wayne Au

On May 5, 2015, a group of civil rights organizations released a statement in opposition to the growing movement to opt out of the current wave of high-stakes, standardized testing. This testing lies at the very heart of current education reform efforts because it provides the fuel that the current education reform machine relies upon: data. Without the numerical data produced by the tests, there is no way to make simplistic comparisons, there is no justification for the corporate entry into public schools, there is no way to shape education along the logics of a competitive marketplace.

Because it challenges the validity of the tests and the data, the opt-out movement strikes at the heart of the reform movement. I feel this sharply here in my home city of Seattle as powerful men including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, and Seattle Schools Superintendent Larry Nyland threaten local test resisters with punishments. Opting out scares those in power because it undermines the education policies being done to — not by — our communities, particularly communities of color. Indeed, many of us have taken great pains to highlight the racially disparate impact of corporate education reforms, especially high-stakes standardized testing, specifically on communities of color.

Which is why I was disappointed to see a statement from several mainstream civil rights organizations opposing the opt-out movement, supposedly on the grounds of civil rights and equality. Most of us would agree that there is rampant educational inequality in our public school system (as there is in the United States in general), but there is clearly disagreement on the root causes of that inequality and the ways to address it. Many of us education activists (and yes, this includes folks of color) challenge the fundamental assumption that high-stakes, standardized testing provides “…fair, unbiased, and accurate data…” as the civil rights organizations assert in their statement, and we challenge this assumption on historical grounds, empirical grounds, pedagogical grounds, political-ideological grounds, cultural grounds, and technical grounds, amongst others.

Therein lies the difference: The civil rights organizations who made their statement against opting out see high-stakes, standardized testing as a solution to educational inequality, while others, like myself, see ample evidence that high-stakes, standardized testing is exasperating educational inequality and therefore needs to be rejected as an inherently damaging measure.

There is a very strong critique of the civil rights organizations’ anti-opt-out statement, written mainly by my good friend, colleague, and noted test-resister, Jesse Hagopian, with the endorsement of the Network for Public Education, so I’m not going to take up a close reading and critique of the civil rights organizations’ anti-opt-out statement. However, anytime I see “grassroots” groups promoting the agenda of the corporate education reformers, like what happened here in Washington State with charter school reform in 2012, I’m always compelled to follow the money.

There were 12 civil rights groups that issued the statement against opting out. These groups are:

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
The American Association of University Women (AAUW)
Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD)
Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc. (COPAA)
Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF)
League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
National Council of La Raza (NCLR)
National Disability Rights Network (NDRN)
National Urban League (NUL)
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC)

Some of these groups are larger and some smaller, and certainly some, like the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the National Council of La Raza, have relatively prominent national profiles. My first wondering is which of these groups are tied to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation because the Gates Foundation has been a central driver behind the Common Core State Standards and maintaining high-stakes, standardized testing as a central tool for decision-making. A quick search reveals that seven are well-funded by the Gates Foundation:

National Council of La Raza: $33,446,160 total
National Urban League: $5,286,017 total
Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (also as the Leadership Conference Education Fund): $3,811,021 total
NAACP: $2,456,106 total
Southeast Asian Resource Center $1,680,105  total
League of United Latin American Citizens: $943,687 total

We cannot, of course, say that these groups came to the defense of high-stakes, standardized testing at the behest of the Gates Foundation, but we should be clear that their politics align with that of the Gates Foundation, and so the fact that these particular civil rights organizations came out in force to support a central reform backed by the foundation should come as no surprise to anyone.

Knowing that along with the Gates Foundation, both the Broad Foundation and the Walton Foundation constitute the “big three” in major philanthropic funding for the corporate education reform effort, I decided to dig just a little more. While I couldn’t find any connection between the Broad Foundation and the 12 civil rights organizations opposing the opt-out movement, I did find two that are also funded by the Walton Foundation:

National Council on La Raza: $2,561,741 total
National Urban League (and Urban League of New Orleans): $731,300 total

There is a deep irony here, considering the Walton Family’s track record with regards to civil rights. For instance, in 2012 civil rights leaders called on Walmart and the Walton Family to withdraw from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is famous for promoting hyper-conservative policies and laws, including the “stand your ground” gun laws associated with the murder of Trayvon Martin. Walmart and the Walton family have spent millions fighting against universal preschool in California, supporting public school voucher programs in various cities, and other conservative initiatives.

And there’s this: According to Making Change At Walmart, Walmart is the largest single employer of African Americans in the country (20 percent of the 1.3 million total employees), pays employees an average of $8.81 an hour, and under Walmart’s definition of full-time work, an employee would only earn 65 percent of the 2014 federal poverty rate for a family of four. According to a brief by the Economic Policy Institute, the Walton Family’s total wealth equals that of 79 percent of the combined wealth of all African American families (or almost 78 percent of the combined wealth of all Latino families).

In a final bit of civil rights irony, the Walmart PAC and the Walton Family’s contributions show that, based on the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ own scores for candidates, they supported candidates who failed to protect civil rights.  For instance, the Walmart PAC has regularly supported noted conservative John Boehner (R-OH), who not only has consistently voted against gay rights, but also voted against race-based affirmative action in college admissions and voted against a bill that would have given $84 million in grants to African-American and Hispanic-serving institutions of higher education. This voting record, combined with his stances against the protecting the rights of women and other groups, has earned him low civil rights ratings from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human rights, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Human Rights Campaign.

So when I see these civil rights groups come out in favor of  testing and in opposition to the opt-out movement, not only do I have to think that they are ignoring the research around high-stakes testing and inequality, but I also have to question just whose rights they are protecting.