Oct 31 2006

Digital Civil Rights

Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, schools ponder whether technology resources are essential to a student's basic right to an education.

ON MAY 17, 2000, exactly 46 years after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, parents and students from underfunded schools across California filed suit. These citizens charged that their state government had stopped paying attention to them long ago and was failing to meet its constitutional responsibility to provide students with an education.

“It’s not fair to the children,” says Sweetie Williams, whose son, Eliezer, was the lead plaintiff in the case, Williams v. California. “Children are always an asset, unless you just put them on the back burner and don’t pay any attention to them.”

Backed by a coalition of organizations led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), they waited four years for victory. A 2004 settlement that was written into state law declares that all California children have a fundamental right to an education, and that it’s up to the state to provide them with the resources — instructional materials, certified teachers, clean and safe schools — to ensure they receive one. (See www.decentschools.org.) But the Williams decision goes a step further. The instructional materials include not just textbooks, but technology resources as well.

“I think common sense dictates that there’s a recognition that technology is an increasingly important component of education,” says Brooks Allen, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California.

For years, states have struggled to address funding inequities that force some students to share textbooks that refer to the Soviet Union while others conduct experiments in state-of-the-art science labs. As technology has become an increasingly critical and ubiquitous component of society, the issue has grown more complex. Some argue that technology resources are as critical to a 21st century education as textbooks.

If technology is essential to education, and education is a fundamental right, this raises the question: Is educational technology a civil right?

For Sweetie Williams, the answer is simple. “It should not be a question,” he says. When he retired from the military, all Williams knew of technology was how to use a word processor. He can’t teach his children the tech skills they need to survive today, much less what they’ll need when they’re adults. That’s up to schools.

“The only way we can be fair with our children,” he says, “is to give them the tools they need.”

Williams is thankful for the victory in California and believes that it will probably make a difference for children across the state, possibly even the nation. But he’s frustrated that it took so much effort to secure what should be a fundamental right.

“Civil rights are for civilized people,” he says. “This should be done in Sacramento and in the White House. I shouldn’t have to spend four years of my life fighting for basic resources for my son.”


Joe Hairston knows how to hush a room. All it takes is one question: “Which child do you not want to educate?”

It was a question he liked to ask when he started as superintendent of the Baltimore County Public Schools in 2000. The inequities in the district’s schools were obvious. Some had state-of-the-art tech programs while others were holding fundraisers to buy standalone computers.

Hairston’s goal was to bring equity to the district, which meant bypassing schools that expected more so he could give to schools that didn’t expect much. It wasn’t an easy sell, but he was determined to give all students access to all that is good about the Baltimore County Public Schools.

Besides reallocating resources, he brought in a technology director from the private sector and set uniform standards for wiring the schools, selecting, purchasing and managing technology, and training teachers to add technology into their curricula. “Everything is districtwide,” Hairston says.

Technology will never be more important than the relationship between a student and a teacher, he adds. But it’s a powerful tool that should be available to all students.

A walk through any toy store makes it clear that children are exposed to technology from the earliest ages. It’s a natural part of how they process information, Hairston says, and incorporating it into learning makes sense.

“I would say it is an integral part of what we do now,” he says. “It’s rapidly becoming a critical skill,” used both as an educational tool and in virtually every industry. Students in Baltimore County will not only compete with their neighbors for jobs, but with peers in other countries. “We are in a true global society,” Hairston says. “For our own economic survival, we have no choice but to prepare our students for higher-level education.”

“Everywhere students turn, access to services will be fronted by technology,” says Steve Holmes, director of technology at Clayton County Public Schools in Georgia. “Health care, financial transactions, access to government services, civic participation and the demands of the workplace will all require a level of technology intelligence.”


Randallstown High School in Baltimore has networked computers in every classroom, computer labs and even its own TV station, where the morning announcements are broadcast. But you wouldn’t know it from its standardized test scores.

Since Hairston hired him to turn around the ailing school in 2004, Principal Tom Evans has upgraded some of the technology, but it hasn’t been his top priority — not by a long shot.

“Students need to be tech-savvy if they’re going to survive in the future,” Evans says. In his 37-year career as an educator, he’s seen schools spend millions on technology without affecting student achievement. Without a staff that knows what to do with the equipment and is committed to using it to enhance learning, technology means nothing, he says. So his top priority is hiring qualified, committed teachers and boosting instructional standards.

That, many say, is where the real inequity comes in. Research shows that technology is often used much more effectively at schools in wealthy areas than in those with fewer resources, says Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Gary Orfield, who directs the university’s Civil Rights Project.

They may be able to secure computers through grants, but poorly funded schools lack the resources and staff to maintain the equipment or to develop an effective plan to use it. These schools lack relevant software, and their teachers aren’t trained to incorporate it into the curriculum.

It’s not just a matter of getting technology into all schools, Orfield says, but rather, getting the accompanying training, technical support, software and supplies. “If it’s connected with instruction in an effective way and people know how to use it, technology can be a very powerful tool,” Orfield adds.

The state law that resulted from the Williams settlement spells out specific standards that all California schools must meet. A student who doesn’t have access to a textbook to do homework can point to a law that says it must be provided. Williams even establishes a statewide complaint process and sets aside money for books and emergency repairs of facilities.

“What I keep hearing from teachers, principals and district officials is how much they appreciate these very strict standards,” says Allen, who oversees the enforcement of the law for the ACLU.

As technology plays a bigger role in what students need to achieve, the time may come to define technology standards that are necessary to fulfill students’ right to an education. Those standards, Allen says, would include not just technology itself, but a professional development plan, technology maintenance and support, and clear educational goals.

“I don’t see that level of specificity when I look around at different schools,” he says. “I see it vary a lot based on the level of expertise of the teachers.”

Across the country in Georgia, Holmes echoes Allen’s sentiments. “There is little doubt that the digital divide exists, and with it, major disparities in our society between information haves and have-nots,” he says. “The harm attributable to this inequity is dangerous, both for those denied access and for society as a whole.

“The access to information technology has become the foundation of success in our society. Under these circumstances, it’s easy to see that technology education has become a civil rights issue.”

Some feel that it’s just a generational issue that will sort itself out in time. When students who were raised from birth surrounded by computers are in power, there will be no questions about whether technology is essential to education, says Gretchen Anderson, director of organizational effectiveness and special projects at WestEd, an educational research agency in San Francisco.

“Eventually, this is just going to be like saying you’ve got to have a pen and pencil,” she predicts.


“Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.”

Those words were permanently etched into our nation’s history 50 years ago this May when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

It spoke of the importance of education to a democratic society, how it is the very foundation of good citizenship. “It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education,” the ruling stated. “Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

Yet, half a century later, many schools still face inequities that are exacerbated by the ever-widening digital divide. As technology shifts from a luxury to a core component of society, the gulf between schools with and without access to effective technology programs is growing.

Part of the problem rests in another Supreme Court case, the 1973 San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez decision, which declared that education is not a fundamental right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

But some argue that it’s time for the nation to revisit that notion. “With the Brown anniversary, there’s been a lot of discussion around reviving education as a fundamental right,” says Jeannie Oakes, professor of Urban Schooling at UCLA, who directs that university’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA) and the University of California’s All Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity (ACCORD).

There are laws, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act, aimed at ensuring that education is provided to all without discrimination.

At the state level, confusion abounds. In fact, when Williams v. California was first filed in 2000, then-governor Gray Davis responded by filing his own suit against local school districts. He charged that it was their responsibility, not the state’s, to ensure that students get an education.

Many states have passed adequacy laws, which set a minimum standard for educational resources, and they aim to shift school funding so that all schools can meet minimum standards. But such “Robin Hood” laws have faced legal challenges across the nation.

The education standards movement has complicated this already thorny subject. In fact, the main argument by the plaintiffs in Williams is that if California insists on setting content standards, it’s the state’s responsibility to ensure that students get the education — and, in turn, the necessary resources — to meet them.

“California has heightened the importance of textbooks and instructional materials further with elementary and middle school promotion policies and a high school exit exam policy aligned with the state’s content standards,” wrote Oakes in the testimony she gave in the Williams case. “Given these ‘high stakes’ policies, problems with the availability and quality of standards-based materials are urgent and require immediate response. … [T]extbooks, instructional materials, equipment and technology are essential tools in California’s educational system, and they must be provided to all California students.”

The intent of the Williams suit was to set a floor — a basic set of standards that must be met for students to receive an education. Therefore, enforcement of the law has so far been focused on providing the basics: fixing safety hazards and buying textbooks. But teachers have begun to use the law to ask for more hardware and newer versions of software.

Few question the value and importance of technology in education, and few are opposed to educational equity, points out Joe Hairston, superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools. “We’ve done a great job of educating some of our children,” he says. “The question is, do we have the will and the commitment to educate all our children?”

There’s a constant struggle among local, state and federal government over where the responsibility for funding education lies, says Hairston. “I think the federal government must be the moral conscience for this nation,” he says, but adds that states and local government must be ultimately responsible for educating students. Denying responsibility and passing the buck doesn’t get anyone anywhere, he says.

“How many failing businesses stay in business?” Hairston asks. “How many failing schools close? There lies your problem. There’s no sense of urgency.”

School reform is a hard job, he acknowledges. “I think you have to begin with the hearts and minds of people, then follow through with the will and commitment to do what is necessary to educate our children,” he says.

That’s what Hairston has done — and continues to do — in Baltimore County. That’s what the educators, parents and students in California did: They stopped accepting the unacceptable and demanded their rights.

“It takes real activism on the part of low-income communities,” says UCLA’s Oakes. “They need to develop more powerful voices to really have a say in the public agenda.”

Her colleague at IDEA, Jane Margolis, agrees that just like the civil rights movement grew out of citizens’ frustration and from the grassroots, educational equity may require the same type of movement.

“I think we’re very, very far away,” Oakes says of educational equity. “But I think there is some movement in that direction.”


Question: Do you consider providing technology tools part of the educational experience, along the same lines as access to quality schools, textbooks and proficient teachers?

66% Yes, proficiency in technology is as fundamental as knowing how to read.

17% Not yet, but in the near future technology will be as fundamental as literacy.

11% No, it’s important but we have bigger fish to fry first, like the three Rs.

5% Yes, parents should march on Washington and demand technology for their children.

1% No, providing technology access and tools is important, but it’s not a fundamental right.

Source: CDW·G (63 EdTech readers polled)


If educational technology were ever deemed critical to students’ right to education, the biggest hurdle to its provision would probably be funding. All but a handful of states have grappled with lawsuits challenging their methods of school funding. Here’s a glimpse at what’s happening in some of those states.

New York: After more than a decade of legal battles, the State Court of Appeals issued its 2004 ruling in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State. It said that all students are entitled to a “meaningful high school education” and that the state’s funding structure does not guarantee that. The court called for a costing-out study to determine what the state must provide in order to give a “sound basic education” to students in New York City.

Texas: In 1995, a Texas school funding court ruling and resulting legislation essentially redistributed revenues from wealthy towns to poor school districts. But in 2001, wealthy towns around the state brought suit, West Orange-Cove Consolidated ISD v. Nelson, saying that the law violates the state constitution. In 2005, the Texas Supreme Court confirmed a 2004 trial court ruling that the school funding and taxing system is unconstitutional, and set a June 1, 2006, deadline for legislative action toward reforming the state school funding system.

Vermont: In its ruling on a 1995 lawsuit, Brigham v. State, the Vermont Supreme Court found that the state’s education finance system violated the state constitution’s education and equal protection clauses. As a result, the state passed Act 60, the Equal Education Opportunity Act, a law that replaced local property taxes with a statewide tax. This law, however, resulted in higher taxes and lower school funding for the state’s wealthiest towns, and, in turn, heated debate throughout the state. Act 68, a 2003 law that went into effect the following year, alleviated the wealthy towns’ concerns over higher tax/lower school funding by revising Act 60. Under the new law, a series of smaller taxes, including a one-percent increase in sales tax and a higher minimum tax for businesses and second properties, added to the statewide school funding coffers.

Kentucky: In its 1989 Rose v. Council for Better Education decision, the Kentucky Supreme Court found the state’s system of “common schools” unconstitutional and ordered the state to reform the property tax system so as to provide every child in the state with an adequate education. The court actually defined “adequate education,” listing seven learning goals (i.e., sufficient oral and written communication skills to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization), and said that the state is ultimately responsible for public education. A 1990 law tied to the court ruling has resulted in increased funding and reforms in schools throughout the state.

More information on state school funding issues is available at www.schoolfunding.info.

Source: Molly A. Hunter, Campaign for Educational Equity, Teachers College, Columbia University

Melissa Solomon is an Austin, Texas-based technology writer.