Across America, Parents Push Back Against Creeping Authoritarianism and Criminalization of Students


America's public schools are the training ground for our next generation of engineers, doctors, artists, lawyers, and other professions that form our dynamic economy. Schools are also here to nurture our children, to allow them to grow, explore and have fun in an environment that is conducive to personal freedom.

But a troubling cultural undercurrent has been creeping into our education system, converting the educational experience into something that can range from the gratuitously stressful to downright racist and cruel, from high-stakes testing to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Parents are bravely standing up to these trends in a growing number of ways.

Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Recent events at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina have cast a spotlight on the increasing utilization of police officers in public schools for disciplinary tasks that used to be handled by teachers, administrators and parents. Protesters outside the state capitol called for the prosecution of the officer involved, and many said a wider institutional system that is over-policing schools is to blame. As budgetary pressures weigh down on schools, some districts are cutting back on these school resource officer (SRO) programs, as they are called.

Schools in Chico, Calif. canceled their SRO program for the first time in 15 years, thanks to budget shortfalls in April 2013. Sometimes police departments themselves are withdrawing.

“Frankly, we determined the program is no longer sustainable for the department,” said trooper Adam Reed, a spokesman for the state police in Pennsylvania said of his department's decision to end walkthroughs at schools. “We’re below our allotted complement of troopers right now. Because of that, we must focus more on operation and patrol needs, putting more troopers on the streets.”

Other SRO programs are being not abolished, but reformed. In September, a federal judge said SROs in Birmingham, Alabama have a “cavalier attitude” about the use of pepper spray on students; he ordered a $400,000 payout to six students who were pepper sprayed and ordered “new training and procedures” for SRO usage of pepper spray.

Late last month, President Obama addressed the school-to-prison pipeline, a sign that the issue is more relevant than ever.

Too Much Homework, Too Much Testing, Not Enough Rest

Much ink has been spilled on the so-called achievement gap between the United States and other countries, but less is said about the fact that this gap primarily exists between our country's lowest-performers—children living in endemic poverty—and the rest.

The focus on increasing standards—longer school days, never-ending school years, lots of homework, and endless testing—ignores the problem of poverty, instead offering the theory that simply pushing kids and their teachers harder will close the gap. Increasingly, America's parents oppose this approach. Revolts against high-stakes testing have taken place all over the country. In April, the fourth largest school district, Miami-Dade schools, eliminated nearly 300 district end-of-course exams, limiting the number to 10. Right-wing groups are working with organizations such as teachers unions to criticize the substance and/or the implementation of Common Core, which seeks to create national curriculum standards.

The movement against over-use of testing scored a major rhetorical victory recently when President Obama's administration admitted that testing has gone overboard, even claiming partial responsibilityMeanwhile, over 800 colleges and universities now no longer require the SAT or ACT in their admissions process, recognizing that these exams may have inflated worth.

Alongside the pushback against over-testing is a movement to reduce homework. In Gaithersburg, Maryland, elementary school principal Stephanie Brant decided her school would replace homework with reading. Rather than taking home complex and tiring assignments, Brant asked her teachers to assign 30 minutes of reading every day.

Many parents, teachers and administrators are also trying to bring back recess. Recess time has long been squeezed by demands for more instructional time and academic work, and parents are starting to notice. In Seattle, one public radio station started tracking recess time over the years, and found that recess time had been declining over the past four years, and that “schools with less time set aside for recess have more low-income students and students of color”—an indication that recess is increasingly a privilege for students with more privileged backgrounds. Those privileged students typically have a mix of higher achievement and more political influence, and thus less pressure from above to raise their performance quickly.

In Florida, several counties, including Polk, Orange and Osceola, are seeing petition drives by parents demanding at least 20 minutes of recess a day for elementary school students.

The Theory Behind Schools With Freedom 

It is no surprise that the schools most subjected to restrictions on freedom like high-stakes testing, cutting back recess and police presence, are those attended by the poor and racial minorities who tend to have lower academic achievement. The theory behind doing this is that these groups need strict treatment in order to raise their achievement.

But we know that countries with the smallest achievement gaps between rich and poor, and between black and Hispanic kids and white kids, follow a very different approach. Schools in Finland are known for their freedom and flexibility. High-stakes testing isn't used, recess is plentiful, and perhaps most importantly, the state provides quality child care and nutrition supports for families, avoiding the sorts of cognitive effects poverty has on American children.

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