March 23, 2006
By ROBERT FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
When lawyers clashed in a New Haven
courtroom recently over a federal school reform law designed to
help poor and minority children, state NAACP President Scot X. Esdaile
couldn't help noticing who was missing.
"It was all white people on this
side [of the courtroom], and all white people on [that] side - and
the argument is about our children," he told a mostly black
audience in Hartford Wednesday.
Esdaile, flanked by prominent national
civil rights lawyers, explained why the state NAACP opposes a lawsuit
filed by Connecticut challenging the federal No Child Left Behind
The NAACP's decision to back the law
is an effort to guarantee that poor and minority children are represented
in the courtroom argument over how it will be applied in Connecticut,
he said. Still, Esdaile stopped short of an all-out endorsement
of the law, the centerpiece of President Bush's school reform agenda.
"The civil rights community feels
we need to be at the table. We have more at stake than anybody,"
Esdaile said of the NAACP's motion to intervene on the side of federal
officials. "It doesn't mean we agree with everything they say."
The meeting at Hartford's Milner School,
a low-performing school in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods,
drew more than 100 people who came to hear more about the civil
rights group's stand on a law that has generated controversy among
educators and politicians.
Connecticut is the only state to go
to court to challenge the law, which calls for a broad expansion
of school testing and a shake-up of schools that fail to make adequate
progress with all students, including low-income children, special
education students and members of minority groups.
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal
filed the lawsuit against U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings
last summer, calling No Child Left Behind an unfunded mandate and
contending that it will unfairly cost state and local taxpayers
hundreds of millions of dollars.
Blumenthal has said the state agrees
with the goals of the law, but "we simply believe it should
be fully funded."
Still, some civil rights leaders have
characterized the state's lawsuit as an effort to escape the obligation
to close the academic gap that finds many low-income and minority
children lagging behind white and middle-class children in the classroom.
The achievement gap in Connecticut
is among the widest in the nation, and the state's opposition to
the law on financial grounds is "very bad policy," said
John C. Brittain, a former Connecticut lawyer and now chief counsel
for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington,
D.C., one of the groups backing the NAACP's intervention.
Brittain Wednesday called the achievement
gap "the No. 1 educational equality issue in the new century."
Educators, civil rights groups and
politicians across the nation are watching the Connecticut lawsuit
closely to gauge its impact on the most sweeping federal education
law in 30 years.
The debate over the law has been characterized
by sharp disagreements, and those differences surfaced at Wednesday's
meeting when a member of the audience questioned the NAACP's stand.
"How can we be sure what the law
is designed to do is what it's going to do?" said the Rev.
Samuel Ross-Lee of Immanuel Baptist Church in New Haven.
He criticized the Bush administration
and said it is "horribly simplistic" to suggest that schools
alone are responsible for the low academic performance afflicting
children in poor neighborhoods, adding that families and community
groups also bear some responsibility.
Dennis Hayes, national general counsel
for the NAACP, replied: "The fact we entered the case on the
side of the Bush administration means nothing. ... I can't say it
any more clearly. We're there for the children because we want to
find out what the rationale is for both sides."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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