• By David G. Hinojosa, J.D., and Jerry Wilson, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2016 •

david-and-jerryMore than 50 years ago, Congress passed two landmark pieces of civil rights legislation aimed at tackling systemic inequalities in the states. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prompted federal intervention to overcome state and local barriers in accessing the voting booth for racial minorities. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) used federal funds as an incentive to urge states to desegregate their public schools and to provide more equitable funding for educating poor and minority schoolchildren.

Fifty years later, control has returned to the states both in the voting booth through a 2013 Supreme Court ruling and in the schoolhouse through the Every Student Succeeds Act passed in 2015.

The Voting Rights Act and Shelby

The Voting Rights Act sought to restore the right to vote for people of color whose rights had been stifled through various state and local measures, including literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses (Coleman, 2016). Section V of the Act restricted the power of local authorities to discriminate against Black and other minority voters by requiring certain states, counties and cities with histories of chronic racial discrimination to obtain permission from the Justice Department or a federal court before altering voting regulations (known as “preclearance”) (Thurgood Marshall Institute, 2016).

The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder in 2013, however, struck down the Section V preclearance requirement, thus returning extensive control to the states and localities. No longer required to obtain preclearance from the federal branches, many state and local officials across the country sought to enact laws that would suppress minority turnout, including redistricting and photo identification laws, decreasing the number of polling places, switching from single-member to at-large voting districts, and reducing the number of early voting days and/or hours (Thurgood Marshall Institute, 2016).

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, seven of the nine states that were excused from federal oversight by the Shelby ruling have since implemented new restrictions on voting that disproportionately affect the poor and voters of color.


Like the Voting Rights Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 sought to reduce discrimination against minorities, but in schools. The ESEA did this by providing significant funding to the states educating low-income children but requiring that states and local education agencies desegregate their school systems in order receive the funding.

Over the years, the ESEA evolved and added testing, accountability and other educational reforms purportedly targeted at closing achievement gaps. In its current form, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law by President Obama in December 2015, potentially represents a major shift in federal policy by returning significant control on implementation of required accountability and intervention to the states.

Some critics of the ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), argued that it was overly punitive and proscriptive, giving the federal government significant influence over state education policies. ESSA gives states and districts much more flexibility in setting standards and learning goals, determining school quality ratings, designing supports for underperforming schools, and deciding how to spend resources. Supporters hope that returning control over school accountability to state and local agencies will improve outcomes for students. Yet, lessons from the Voting Rights Act caution such optimism.

Even under NCLB, most states adopted policies that engaged the most severe sanctions against underperforming schools and local educational agencies (Institute on Education Law and Policy, nd). These sanctions included stripping power from locally-elected school boards and transferring control of schools to non-public charter operators, or educational management organizations, or to city- or state-appointed authorities (Trujillo et al., 2012).

Oftentimes, these actors have zero accountability owed to the local community, and the local community no longer has a voice. This runs counter to the research showing how actively engaging communities can create greater equity in helping to turn around low-performing schools while not sacrificing the democratic process (Trujillo et al., 2012).

Although these more drastic takeover interventions are exercised far less frequently than other interventions, like school turnaround or school transformation, when they are engaged, they often target high-poverty, urban communities of color (Hurlburt, et al., 2011). Some of these schools taken over by states and others include: El Paso, Flint, Memphis, New Orleans and Nashville. These are just a few examples where students and communities of color make up a strong majority of the schools taken over (see, e.g., Sen, 2016).

This is not to suggest that low-performing schools should not be required to address their shortcomings or that, occasionally, more invasive efforts may be needed to help schools improve learning or where they are not appropriately carrying their financial fiduciary duties. To be clear, accountability and interventions are critical measures that should be spearheaded at the federal level where states and local education agencies also must address inequitable and inadequate educational opportunities, including funding and staffing (Cortez, 2010).

But putting aside the valid argument that current accountability systems focus too narrowly on test data, the critical failure of the “takeover” movement is the absence of local community control (and not mere “input”). That is not only bad educational policy but bad democratic policy.

Listen to the podcast episode: English Learners and the New ESSA Law

Hope on the Horizon?

But all is not lost in voting or education. In voting, while 16 states will have restrictive voting laws in place for the 2016 presidential election (Brennan, 2016), several other states and localities have undertaken efforts to expanding voting access. For example, many states are considering bills that would reverse the disenfranchisement of felons who have served their time (Brennan, April 2016). A growing number of states, including West Virginia, Vermont and Oregon, passed laws requiring automatic voter registration, and others are considering bills that would authorize online registration (Brennan, April 2016).

And in education, the same opportunities present themselves under ESSA. Many advocates begged for less-prescriptive federally-required accountability and intervention designs compared to the NCLB. Now is the time to seize this moment by operating with transparency in research-based designs and public reporting of school quality measures while seeking to meaningfully engage families and community members in each step of the process.

Instead of shifting control from local, minority communities to educational management organizations, charter school operators and state-appointed authorities, states could begin by ensuring that their accountability systems capture more measures beyond test scores since public education is a public good and exists not only to help students achieve academically but also to build stronger students civically and socially (Trujillo & Rivera, 2016).

Second, for those schools identified for intervention, states should measure and improve upon:

  • the inequitable and inadequate resources and opportunities for all students;
  • building systems for the development of a stronger teaching force and the equitable distribution and recruitment of high-quality teachers;
  • providing equitable and adequate school funding;
  •  creating a rigorous, culturally relevant curriculum;
  • expanding college-readiness preparation for all; and
  •  community engagement and parent involvement programs (Robledo Montecel & Goodman, 2010).

States also should provide critical expertise and support to local education agencies to help improve learning for all students and to design systems that develop better citizens, including efforts to racially and economically integrate students (Frankenberg, et al., 2016).

Many of these actions are supported by more recent efforts of the U.S. Department of Education and under the ESSA. For example, the department issued guidance on resource inequities, including access to high-quality teachers for impoverished and minority communities and access to college-preparatory coursework (Llamon, 2014).

Under the ESSA, states and LEAs are required to address resource inequities for targeted support schools and comprehensive support. Under the new regulations governing the federally-funded equity assistance centers, the department listed socio-economic integration experience as a competitive priority and teacher equity experience as an invitational priority.

Ultimately, the diminishing role of the federal government under the ESSA means that state and local policymakers must ensure that with each decision, they are choosing policies that support high-quality public schools and opportunities for all children. The research shows that market-driven accountability systems have not resulted in sustained, improved learning opportunities, and more equitable options should be explored (see, e.g., Trujillo & Rivera, 2016; Kirshner & Gaertner, 2015).

Rather than casting shame on underperforming, under-resourced schools and stripping control from local communities of color, states and LEAs should implement comprehensive support systems that address the education needs of all students and families.


Brennan Center for Justice. (April 18, 2016). Voting Laws Roundup 2016 (New York, N.Y.: Brennan Center for Justice). https://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/voting-laws-roundup-2016

Brennan Center for Justice. (2016). New Voting Restrictions in Place for 2016 Presidential Election, web page (New York, N.Y.: Brennan Center for Justice).http://www.brennancenter.org/voting-restrictions-first-time-2016

Coleman, K.J. (2015). The Voting Rights Act of 1965: Background and Overview(Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service).https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43626.pdf

Cortez, A. (2010, November-December). “Accountability that Doesn’t Hurt Students,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association). http://www.idra.org/resource-center/accountability-that-doesnaet-hurt-students/%20/

Frankenberg, E., & L.M. Garces, M. Hopkins (Eds.). (2016). School Integration Matters: Research-Based Strategies to Advance Equity (New York: Teachers College).

Hurlburt, S., & K.C. Le Floch, S. Bowles Therriault, S. Cole. (2011). Baseline Analyses of SIG Applications and SIG-Eligible and SIG-Awarded Schools(Washington, D.C.: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED519322.pdf

Institute on Education Law and Policy. (No date). 50-State report on Accountability, State Intervention and Takeover (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University). http://ielp.rutgers.edu/docs/developing_plan_app_b.pdf

Kirshner, B., & M. Gaertner. (2015). Review of “School Closures and Student Achievement: An Analysis of Ohio’s Urban District and Charter Schools”(Boulder, Colo.: National Education Policy Center). http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/ttr-kirshner-school-closures_0.pdf

Lhamon, C.E. “October 1, 2014). Dear Colleague Letter: Resource Comparability (Washington, D.C.: Office for Civil Rights).http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-resourcecomp-201410.pdf

Robledo Montecel, M., & C.L. Goodman. (2010). Courage to Connect: A Quality Schools Action Framework (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association). http://www.idra.org/change-model/college-bound-determined/

Sen, A. (2016). State Takeovers of Low-Performing Schools: A Record of Academic Failure, Financial Mismanagement & Student Harm (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Center for Popular Democracy).https://populardemocracy.org/sites/default/files/National%20Takeover%20Ed%20Report.pdf

Thurgood Marshall Institute at LDF. (2016). Democracy Diminished: State and Local Threats to Voting Post-Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder (Washington, D.C.: NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund).http://www.naacpldf.org/files/publications/Democracy%20Diminished-State%20and%20Local%20Voting%20Changes%20Post-Shelby%20v.%20Holder_4.pdf

Trujillo, T., & M.R. Valladares, T. Kini. (2012). Democratic School Turnarounds: Pursuing Equity and Learning from Evidence (Boulder, Colo.: National Education Policy Center).  http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/democratic-school-turnarounds

Trujillo, T., & M. Rivera. (2016). Review of “Measuring School Turnaround Success” (Boulder, Colo.: National Education Policy Center).http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/reviews/TTR%20Trujillo%20Turnaround_0.pdf

Wong, K.K., & F.X. Shen. (2003). “Big City Mayors and School Governance Reform: The Case of School District Takeover,” Peabody Journal of Education, 78(1), 5-32.

David Hinojosa, J.D., is IDRA‘s National Director of Policy and Director of South Central Collaborative for Equity. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at david.hinojosa@idra.org. Jerry Wilson, M.A., is a doctoral student in Education Policy, Leadership, and School Improvement at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the summer of 2016, he served as a 2016 Ginny Looney SELI Summer Fellow at IDRA.

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2016 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]