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The People Have Spoken

"The problem with No Child left behind is that we end up treating kids like plastic bags. We stuff the information into them and don't look at who they are and where they come from. And I have to tell you that after working in the field as long as I have, it's enough to drive you crazy.

The speaker, an older woman who described herself as a long-time public school teacher, was rewarded with vigorous nods by most of the other people around the table. The group, which had assembled in a conference room in Alfred Lerner Hall to talk about early childhood education, was one of 10 lunchtime audience breakout sessions convened by Michael Rebell,  executive director of The Campaign for educational equity, to outline action responses to data from the two-day symposium on "The Social Costs of Inadequate education."

"I want to begin a discussion among all of us here today about what the policy responses should be to these powerful findings," Rebell had told the audience earlier in the day. "How can we make sure they don't fall with the same dull thud that similar findings did in 1972?" Rebell -- who in spearheading a $14 billion school funding lawsuit against

New York State over the past decade has made public engagement into something of an art form-'"asked the crowd to consider the best economic investments society can make; the best moral investments; and which investments would be most likely to advance the ability of young people too function as capable citizens.

The ensuing meetings did not always move along such orderly lines, but there was no mistaking the passion people brought to the discussions.

"White people need to wake up and realize what they will miss in unintegrated schools," declared Ashley Osment of the University of North Carolina's Center for Civil rights, speaking in the session on racial integration. Osment, who is white, pointed a finger at what she called "the public education cartel."

In the discussion of parental involvement and training, Rosa Agosto, a former president of the New York State Girl Scouts Council and the mother of a teen-aged daughter, warned about the power of words.

"We should talk about parental training, not parental education," she said.  "A parent from the Dominican or elsewhere may be highly educated but still not be trained in the ways of public schools in the U.S. That's why I wish there had been more discussion of Ron Ferguson's work."

Agosto was alluding to the Harvard researcher who had spoken about racial and ethnic differences in parenting styles.  "The room gets real quiet when someone starts talking about real differences in how people live and behave," she said.

And so it went. A middle-aged African-American woman called for more civics courses in public schools, saying "they teach you about why you pay your taxes-'"because you have a community obligation." An older white man suggested appealing to "people's sense that they should leave the country better than they found it." And an elderly white woman, recalling how Eleanor Roosevelt had braved death threats from the KuKlux Klan to fight for civil rights, chastised herself and her fellow discussants. "We can't even fight for our local public schools."

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