Michael Rebell

The Campaign for Educational Equity

VTR Date: September 19, 2005

Michael A. Rebell, Esq. discusses the Campaign for Educational Equity.


GUEST: Michael Rebell, Esq.
VTR: 09/19/2005

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And if you have been watching this program for even just a few of its near fifty years on the air, you know how often I’ve turned to Columbia University’s much honored Teachers College for ideas, for guests, for underwriting … all of which and of whom have contributed enormously to this program.

Indeed, during all of his highly achieving tenure as Teachers College’s distinguished President, Arthur Levine himself came here time and again to discuss not only the need of institutions like his own to maintain the highest standards of educational learning and leadership, but also the American people’s need both to recognize and to do something about – and I quote Dr. Levine – “What we believe to be the most urgent issue facing education today … that gap in opportunities, expectations, and outcomes between the most disadvantaged and the most advantaged children in our society”.

“Our country today has two educational systems”, he insists. “They’re separate and they’re unequal. We have one that serves more affluent suburban children and another that serves primarily low-income urban children of color. And the reality is that what’s been called the achievement gap exists in the classroom and it exists out of the classroom, and we all know that.”

Well, Teachers College’s President had put it on the line. And TC’s determined Board of Trustees did more than that, too. Earlier this year they launched their impressive Campaign for Educational Equity … and chose as its leader educational activist attorney Michael A. Rebell – my guest today – whose relevant legal strategy has long rested on the concept of educational adequacy, holding that each child is entitled under our Constitution to a sound, basic education.

But, let me first ask attorney Rebell – now Professor of Law and Education Practice at Teachers College – to describe the origins and rationale of his Campaign for Educational Equity. What lies behind it?

REBELL: Well, Richard, as you indicated, an incredible decision by the Trustees at Teachers College to make the mission of the entire institution the promotion of educational equity. And what they told me when they asked me to consider this job is that they have in mind to turn all of the resources of that institution … that means their research capacity, teaching, demonstration projects, dissemination and advocacy in the direction of educational equity.

And, as you know, this is something that I’ve been working on for my whole professional life. And this is just going to give us a magnificent platform to deal with this issue in New York City, New York State and throughout the country.

HEFFNER: Educational Equity … explain the phrase.

REBELL: Well the phrase at its core means what you mentioned which is trying to eliminate that achievement gap between minority students and non-minority students; which is going to be the most critical issue of the 21st century, I think. If we don’t overcome that gap, by the time we get to 2050 when more than half of the students in our schools are going to be so-called minorities, this country is going to be in trouble from an economic point of view, from a world, international relations point of view and from the viewpoint of carrying on our, our democratic society.

So, it’s critical for the nation’s interest that we bring that opportunity to these children and that’s, of course, in addition to the fact that we have a heavy moral burden here … we’re still 51 years since Brown vs. Board of Education and the state of the nation, as Jonathan Kozel put it in his recent book is that we’ve made very little progress on desegregation and opening opportunity to minority children.

Last ten years we’ve actually had a trend toward re-segregation of America’s schools. So these are the kinds of critical issues we’ve got to deal with.

But in addition I’m mindful of the fact that “equity” means fairness for everyone. And we have issues regarding special education for students with disabilities. We still have issues of gender equity, bi-lingual education … so there are an enormous range of issues covered by this concept of equity.

HEFFNER: And your approach obviously is to use the law.

REBELL: Well, my approach is to use the law, but my approach is to use all the resources we have at Teachers College, all the resources we have at Columbia University because Lee Bollinger, the President is enthusiastically behind us and we’re going to link up with the Law School, the School of Public Health, the Journalism School, whatever division of Columbia can be useful, that resource is going to be available to us and we obviously are going to be reaching out across the country …I’ve already been swamped with contacts from educators and educational institutions nationwide who are eagerly seeking to make these connections to have greater strength in promoting equity in their areas also.

HEFFNER: How do you, personally, account for the fact that Brown vs. Board of Education … 50 plus years ago, has not really been effective.

REBELL: Well, I think Brown has been very effective in the sense that it has changed the entire vocabulary, the entire politics, the entire way of thinking about issues of education and equity.

You now have a vast majority of the public in this country saying that the elimination of this achievement gap is a major, major responsibility, a major issue that they’re concerned about. I think the latest poll in the Phi Delta Kappa said something like 90% of the American public thinks that we have to overcome this achievement gap as a major national goal. Now that’s astounding, when Brown came out, I think the figures on the percentage of the public that supported it was somewhere in the 20% range.

So the fact that this has been accepted has become part of the political mainstream, you may say, is not insignificant. And the fact that we’ve got the “No Child Left Behind” act which has many problems … and I’m the first to criticize it in many ways, but nevertheless, it has established as national policy in this county the notion that we must, we must achieve the elimination of the achievement gap. We must make 100% of the students throughout the country proficient in challenging state standards over the next decade.

That’s an extraordinary statement. Now, there’s a gap between this State and National policy, between the commitment of the vast majority of the American public and the achievement of providing real opportunity to minority kids and poor kids throughout the country.

And that’s the gap that we’re working with, and that’s why I think this new campaign we have at Columbia is so important. Because we’re going to try to put together the two elements here … the commitment, the stated commitment, the psychological commitment and the reality that we haven’t put the resources behind this and we haven’t put the community commitment to continuing desegregation behind it. And that’s our challenge and over the next decade that’s what we’re going to work on.

HEFFNER: And how do you achieve what you want to achieve? What are the steps you’re going to take?

REBELL: Well, the first step … as you mentioned, my background is an attorney-advocate and for me the first step was to go into court and establish what the legal parameters are and see if we can get the judicial branch articulating this in Constitutional terms and making it a mandatory issue that has to be dealt with on more than an abstract basis. It has to be dealt with by legislatures, by Congress in a very practical sense.

We’ve largely achieved that. Besides Brown vs. Board of Education, which was the general principles statement, we’ve been able to follow that up with the range of what we call “adequacy lawsuits” around the country. And that’s been an astounding record.

The “adequacy” lawsuits, you might say, are the practical implementation of the Brown vision and the “No Child Left Behind” commitment. Because what they say is, “All right, if you believe in this in the abstract, now we have to get down to the nitty-gritty about talking about the resources we need to do the job. And we can’t eliminate the achievement gap, we can’t provide real opportunity for minority kids and poor rural kids and many others who had been left behind, if we don’t look at how much do you really need in terms of hard resources, certified teachers, highly qualified teachers, adequate facilities … computers, science labs, all the things that good schools have and too many poor schools don’t have.

So these lawsuits, which have been battled out in the State courts throughout the country over the last few decades, have left an enormous positive record. We’ve had 26 decisions of the highest state courts in the last 15 years; plaintiffs have won 20 of those. That’s almost 80% in a generally Conservative time.

This is really saying something. So I see that as a first point. We’ve got the principle out there; we’ve got courts stating “Now you have to put the resources behind it.”

Now the third major element is “What do you do with those resources? How do you make the money matter?” How do you overcome the attitude that we get from many people, and I’m not talking about cynics … I’m talking about supporters, who say, “Yes, I believe in this, I want to overcome the achievement gap. But can we really do it? How do we know we’re not just dumping billions of dollars into the rat hole that has been urban education in too many places.

HEFFNER: But there’s another gap that you seem to be ignoring and that is the gap … and maybe we can put it this way … between the judiciary and the legislative branches of our governments.

The courts say “You’ve won” and you have won case after case. Then what?

REBELL: Well, the way it should happen, the way separation of powers should work is that there should, in essence, be a dialogue between the courts and the legislature and the executive branch, now that we’ve declared what the Constitutional requirement is … how do we carry it out?

And the major part of that should be policy determinations by the legislature and the executive branch. Now that’s how it’s happened in a number of states. In Kentucky, for instance, which was the grandfather, the first of these cases back in ’89, the courts came up with an astoundingly radical position … even more than the plaintiffs had asked for … because the plaintiffs there asked for fairness in funding … and the legislature went ahead and said, “You know, while we’re taking a look at the funding, the whole system stinks.” So they re-vamped their whole education system … top to bottom … followed 100% of what the courts said, and more. In Vermont we had a decision five or six years ago. The court ordered a major revamping of the funding system, the legislature came through within three or four months. So that’s happened in a number of states.

HEFFNER: In New York?

REBELL: Now, unfortunately, in New York and a few others, the legislature and the Governor have been more recalcitrant and they’ve resisted the courts and they’ve set up this confrontation between the branches of government. And that is unfortunate and I hope we’re going to move past it.

But right now we are in a Constitutional confrontation in New York; the court had set a deadline for action; they had set some general guidelines, but left the details, left the hard policy work to the Governor and the legislature.

But the court had said, “We’re going to give you a year or so; get the job done.” That year ended a year ago July 2004 and the Governor and the legislature … he called a special session, he appointed a Commission and all, but in the end they couldn’t get their act together, there was impasse, there was no action, there was no movement.

So we had to bring the matter back to court and the trial judge appointed a panel of distinguished referees … they looked into the matter and did the job that the Legislature and the Governor didn’t do. They determined how much money was necessary, how you had to get the money to the schools, what we needed to do for facilities, etc. And they wrote a document that set this out and the lower court issued an order saying “The amount of money is $5.6 billion dollars for New York City, phased in over four years. Additional money for facilities, certain accountability measures.”

The Governor and the Legislature should be following up on this. But the Governor saw fit to drag this out. Further, he’s now appealed that order, under the legal procedures he gets to drag this out a while. I think the bottom line is inevitable and it’s clear. But he’s delayed the children of New York City and in fact, New York State for another year now, which I think is really outrageous.

He stood up to the judicial branch and he’ll be able to do that for another six months or so. But I think the die is cast and will have a court order and we will have a requirement to spend the money. And I think they’ll have to do it. It’s unfortunate that it’s being done in this confrontational way.

HEFFNER: And your feeling is that, once that has happened, and you feel certain that it shall … using the examples of other states …


HEFFNER: … that then the question is going to be how do you use those funds.

REBELL: That’s exactly right. And this is where, for me personally, the opportunity that’s been provided by Teachers College and Columbia University was just the right thing at the right time. It’s exactly what we needed for this … for New York State and nationally.

We’ve had a network of the attorneys and advocates that have been involved in all these cases nationwide. We’ve got a network of people in 39 states and, as you see with 26 victories, there’s a lot going on.

But we’re all at the stage … or many of us are at the stage of saying “Okay, we won in court, we either have this money, or it’s in sight. Now how do we make that money really matter?”

And this is where having the opportunity to ask the faculty at a place like Teachers College to really focus on these issues to help us understand what programs can work; what accountability measures are necessary and going to these issues in real depth … that is exactly what this adequacy movement needed at this time, and this is exactly what Columbia’s going to provide us.

HEFFNER: I couldn’t help but think, with your appointment, to ask myself … and I don’t know what the answer is and perhaps you can offer it. Is there another example of a major institution, like Teachers College, devoting itself and its resources in such a full fledged manner, such a total manner, to a social problem such as this? Or are we pioneering here?

REBELL: I think we’re pioneering new territory. You know many universities have gotten involved in major social policy issues in their local areas. And I know for years the University of Pennsylvania worked with the Philadelphia school system. And the University of Chicago has had a wonderful consortium project evaluating new programs in the local school system.

But I’m not aware of any institution that has said its entire mission is going to be promoting progress in a really cutting edge public policy area like this one.

HEFFNER: What concerns me, and I hope you’ll understand that I’m … not trying to be negative … what concerns me is your assumption that the American people … and you use the statistics between the time of Brown and our own time … the American people are aware of this gap. And are as concerned about it as you clearly are.

REBELL: I think it’s fair to say they are concerned about it. Now in that 90% statistic, the levels of concern obviously are going to be different among many people. I think it’s genuine.

The other polling information that I always find fascinating is that when people are asked, “Would you be willing to accept an increase in your personal taxes to promote educational equity in inner cities and rural areas?”

It’s not 90%, but the statistics in New York State, nationally … they are always a majority saying, “Yes. I’m willing to increase my own taxes to support this.”

But there’s usually a qualification … and the qualification is … “I’m willing to pay more taxes if I am convinced that the money’s going to be used well and it will really make a difference.”

So that’s the challenge we have. And I sometimes say, “This is the credibility we have in trying to deal with the achievement gap.” There’s a credibility gap. And the gap is that in principle most people, the overwhelming number of people support this, even to the extent of saying they’ll put their money there. But they don’t think we have credible answers yet to how we really do it.

They don’t believe, in their heart of hearts, that you can substantially overcome this achievement gap. So that’s the real challenge we’re facing. And I don’t say that I’ve got all the answers to this. I have some answers that I gave to a number of judges and satisfied them … to a certain extent. But now we’ve got the hard challenge of making it happen. And that’s where having the resources of 140 faculty members at TC, thousands of students who are enthusiastic, a Board of Trustees that’s going to help us mount demonstration projects and support policy decisions. And the outreach we’re going to be doing to institutions throughout this country, to political leaders, legislative leaders … we hope to really make a dent in answering those questions and overcoming this credibility gap.

HEFFNER: What do you think the single most important problem that you face will be? I understand … in … overcoming the credibility gap?

REBELL: Well, I think the highest priority in this issue that most people would agree on and certainly the New York Court of Appeals put this out as priority number one, and I accept that. And that they built from a seven month trial record where we presented all the data.

The biggest issue here is getting truly qualified teachers into the schools with the greatest needs. In a place like New York City, right now we don’t have enough highly qualified teachers and those that we have tend, by and large … there are exceptions … but by and large they tend to seek out spots in the schools that are not the most needy.

It’s because obviously those are the most difficult places to be. We’ve got to turn that around, we’ve got to attract enormous increase in highly qualified teachers. Perhaps even more important than attracting them is retaining them because 50% of our teachers now leave New York City within three or four years and we’ve got to make sure that the, the cream of the crop goes to the schools where they are needed the most.

HEFFNER: Do you …

REBELL: It’s a tall order.

HEFFNER: Do you approach this tall order …


HEFFNER: … with some sense of, not just legal, but educational philosophy that you will bring to bear on these challenges?

REBELL: You know I have certain theories and preferences of my own, but quite frankly I’m a bit humbled with I deal with a 140 talented faculty people at Columbia. When I deal with Joe Klein and a lot of people with expertise in the New York City Board of Ed.

I don’t pretend to have the answers on, on that front. And I think it’s my job to identify the issues, see where the people who can do the research and come up with the answers are and try to give them the resources and the opportunity to come up with those answers and help disseminate them. So this is not my personal agenda by any means.

HEFFNER: How well do we do in comparison with other peoples?

REBELL: With other peoples ..

HEFFNER: In other countries.

REBELL: … overseas?


REBELL: Well, I think in terms of this commitment, this philosophy of equal opportunity … despite a very checkered long range history that the United States has had, starting with slavery, of course, and racial segregation and all. I think at this point in time there is a powerful dynamic in, in American political and philosophical psyche, you might say … that goes beyond what exists in almost any other country in the world.

I trace it back to that interesting concept of the American dilemma that Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist first identified … I think in the forties … that precisely because we had this checkered past and this awful legacy of slavery, there’s a gnawing conscience, you might say, in the American psyche and it drives a commitment to really overcome that past and to provide opportunity that is a powerful dynamic. That has … it has done a lot in American history; it’s given us Brown vs. Board of Ed; it’s given us the 1964 Civil Rights Act; it’s given us the affirmative action thrust that we’ve had in higher education and so many other areas.

Not perfect … for every two steps forward, there’s another step backward. But it’s a unique, I would say, democratic imperative that has existed in America.

So there are other countries in the world that may have better statistics at this point in terms of graduation rates of minority students and all. But I don’t think they have the magnitude and the extent of the problem and the entrenched practices to overcome.

So I do tend to rate the United States pretty high on the long-range stage of serious commitment and endeavor in dealing with this. At the same time, I am very concerned with the growing gap between the rich and the poor in a pure economic sense. That is a disgrace in the United States at this point.

Instead of moving in an egalitarian direction economically in general, which of course, is an important backdrop to what we’re talking about in education, we know that the amount of national resources that have been going to the top 20%, and more specifically to the top 1% of the people in income terms in this country … has been growing and the gap between the extent of wealth that the rich have and the extent of wealth the poor … has been moving in a negative direction in America, whereas in many European countries it’s been moving in an opposite direction.

HEFFNER: But that’s why, without wanting to seem to rain on the parade, it occurs to me that you are expressing all of this optimism at a time when we do realize that what we thought was a reform, that took place in the New Deal, really, that has been … to put it briefly, as a re-division, or re-distribution of our national resources.

We seem to be getting more and more into a situation where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And now you’re saying we can do something totally different in the field of education. How come?

REBELL: Well, you might say this is another gap that we’ve got to wrestle with. I think there’s a genuine commitment to educational opportunity in this country. It’s at the core of what we call the American Dream. And people do believe in that. And they believe in opportunity and they believe in fairness.

They haven’t fully thought through the implications of that and what that means in a larger sense when you get down to the nitty-gritty of having to provide the resources to give that opportunity …

HEFFNER: You mean what they have to sacrifice.

REBELL: What they have to sacrifice. And that’s going to be part of our job to put that out there. It is interesting and you know, with all the tragedy that’s come out of the Katrina situation … and it’s been devastating and so many lives have been so totally upset by that … but one silver lining, if you can see silver lining in gray … very gray storm clouds like that is … it has put on the top of the national agenda the reality, in a very concrete sense that somehow, some people hadn’t understood, that poverty is a horrendous issue in this country in the 21st century and we’ve been glossing over the reality of what that means.

So there’s been a reawakening of, of understanding of the fact that the poor people didn’t suffer equally with the wealthy people in Louisiana. The poor people took the brunt of it.

And this is inconsistent with the American Dream. It’s inconsistent with anybody’s sense of morality. So I think that, together with the fact that we do have a leverage point, you might say, on this larger equity issue. We have a leverage point in this national commitment to equal opportunity which has been stated in the strongest manner in our entire history, in the “No Child Left Behind Act”.

I see my job, I see the job of our campaign, I see the job of those who are working with us in this field to bring out that inconsistency, to bring out the hypocrisy, if we want to use a strong word for it … in saying we believe in educational opportunity, but so far we haven’t put the resources behind it.

HEFFNER: I can only comment, Michael Rebell, that you have a job …

REBELL: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … before you and I wish you so well.

REBELL: Well, thank you.

HEFFNER: And thank you for coming to talk about it.

REBELL: It’s been my pleasure, Richard.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.