NEA's Push for "Ethnic Studies" Raises Questions

I think it’s great to see people stand up for minority kids. My policy friend Ross Izard’s recent profile of Arrupe Jesuit High School was a reminder of just how powerful those efforts can be, particularly in the context of using educational choice to provide opportunities these kids otherwise would not have.

Some of you may also remember Ross’s other article on testing and teacher tenure, in which he cites the Vergara decision knocking down California’s tenure law. In that decision, the judge commented that tenure’s tendency to keep not-so-great teachers in front of kids who most need great ones “shocks the conscience.” Tenure reform is a critical part of correcting this problem and making sure every kid reaps the benefits of having a great teacher.

But maybe minority kids don’t need all those fancy, newfangled opportunities or consistently fantastic teachers. Maybe they just need some more “ethnic studies” classes. So goes the thinking at NEA headquarters.

Last week, I ran across a article about NEA’s push to make classes in ethnic studies a graduation requirement “in every school.”  They’ve even put together a toolkit containing materials on how to make such a dream into reality. There’s plenty of reading material there for those who would like to dive deeper.

Of course, what the toolkit doesn’t mention is how expensive such a graduation requirement could be. Los Angeles Unified School District’s new ethnic studies graduation requirement, which is apparently intended to serve as a model of sorts for the rest of the country, is now slated to cost the district $73 million dollars. The new requirement was initially supposed to cost $4 million.

So why the massive cost? Well, to implement a requirement like this, you need new curricula, materials, textbooks, and teachers. Lots and lots of teachers. I’m only five, and my innocent mind is not yet fully capable of cold, hard cynicism, but even I have trouble ignoring the fact that a juicy new pool of potentially dues-paying union teachers would be something NEA might find appealing. That’s particularly true given the fact that its membership numbers continue to fall across the country.

Let’s take NEA at its word and say that it really, legitimately does want to help low-income minority kids achieve great things. There are at least two great ways to do that: Let tenure as it currently exists go the way of the dinosaurs, and return education policy—including educational choice policy—to state legislatures “where it belongs.” I should make a joke about flying pigs here, but I find the chances of NEA ever backing these efforts so distressingly low that I just don’t have it in me.

But hey, I can be fair. Maybe ethnic studies classes really are as valuable in some circumstances as NEA’s 2010 literature review makes them out to be. And maybe some communities really, really want such programs and would love to adopt (and pay for) them. Fine by me. All things considered, though, I think getting low-income minority kids into great schools and in front of great teachers seem like more reasonable ways to improve those kids’ outcomes.