Impact Center Symposium Draws Academics, Government Leaders, and Advocates on School Equity Issues

On April 7, New York Law School’s Impact Center for Public Interest Law assembled a cross-section of legal and policy experts for the full-day symposium “Equal Educational Opportunity: Progress, Challenges, and Next Steps.”

Left to right: Eleanor Spencer 2L, Professor Susan J. Abraham, Professor and Co-Director of the Impact Center for Public Interest Deborah N. Archer, New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman, Adjunct Professor and Impact Center Associate Director Lisa Grumet, and Veronica Rose 2L.

The panelists and speakers included law professors, senior city government officials, advocates from civil liberties and legal services groups, private attorneys, and education experts.

“Certainly one of the biggest challenges that we face as a city and a nation is figuring out how to substantially improve educational equity so that every child has access to a good education, regardless of their circumstances or background,” Dean Anthony W. Crowell said in his opening remarks.

Shifting priorities at the federal level, he noted, could place more responsibility on city, county, and state officials in New York and throughout the nation to address race-, gender-, and disability-related discrimination in school settings.

The day included panels on school integration, gender equity, and educating children with disabilities. Professors Deborah N. Archer and Richard Marsico, Co-Directors of the Impact Center, and Professor Susan J. Abraham each led a panel.

Professor Archer moderated the “Desegregation, Integration, and Equality” discussion, which included Rutgers Law Professor Elise Boddie, Brooklyn Council Member Brad Lander, and Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Racial Justice Program Dennis Parker, who has been litigating a 28-year-long case involving desegregation in Hartford, Connecticut public schools.

“Data shows that the nation’s public schools over the past two decades have become increasingly segregated by race and also by class,” Professor Archer said in introductory remarks. “The conventional wisdom is that this is de facto, not de jure, segregation—that it’s the result of residential patterns that we can’t really do much about. Certainly, New York City’s residential and school segregation go hand in hand, but focusing on residential segregation alone would not let any of us off the hook … After all, residential segregation in New York City and around the country is not accidental. It is the result of decades, indeed, probably centuries of decision-making …”

The group discussed a prominent strain of thought that prioritizing school integration is at odds with improving educational quality, as well as examples of localities that have integrated or failed to integrate their public schools, relevant legal cases, the role of zoning, and whether improving socioeconomic status alone can improve school segregation.

The “Title IX and Gender Equity” panel was led by Professor Abraham and included New York Civil Liberties Union Senior Staff Attorney Erin Beth Harrist; New York City Children’s Cabinet Executive Director Benita Miller; Robert Kim, the William T. Grant Distinguished Fellow at Rutgers Graduate School of Education; and Professor Michelle Fine of the City University of New York.

Professor Abraham asked broad questions to frame the discussion: “How do concepts of gender identity and sexuality, and our habit and sometimes our need to put people in boxes of either male or female, affect children’s feeling of safety and well-being and comfort and ability to succeed in school?” The group spoke about the federal government’s shift in public school bathroom guidance, how schools handle sexual assault investigations, flexible education strategies that support young parents, peer harassment, and issues specific to LGBTQ students.

Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, gave the keynote speech “Public Education and the Trump Administration: Protecting Civil Rights and Civil Liberties,” emphasizing the need to strengthen student protections and to ensure that immigrant students have equal access to a public school education.

The day’s final panel, “Educating Children with Disabilities” was moderated by Professor Marsico and focused on special education law. Professor Marsico noted the “millions of public school children who were excluded from public school due to their disabilities” prior to the 1975 passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

“The very basic elements of that act are that first, every child has the right to attend a public school as every other child, and that public school has to provide the child with a free, appropriate public education consisting of special education and related services,” he said.

The panelists were noted education and disability lawyers and experts: Jean Marie Brescia, Senior Counsel at Mayerson & Associates; Susan Briggs, Of Counsel at Cohen Schneider; Karin Goldmark, Senior Education Policy Advisor to the First Deputy Mayor of New York City; and Nelson Mar, a Senior Staff Attorney at Bronx Legal Services. They discussed case law affecting students with disabilities, bullying, progress in academic outcomes, and socioeconomic and racial disparities in access to special-education programs and lawsuits.

Professor Archer, Professor Marsico, and Impact Center Associate Director and Adjunct Professor Lisa Grumet spearheaded the day’s programming. Impact Center Senior Fellows Jane Rosales 3L, Veronica Rose 2L, Eleanor Spencer 2L, and Sarah Schmidt 3L helped plan and execute the event.

View photos from the symposium here.