Using Critical Race Theory to Frame an Understanding of the Education Debt

In their ground breaking article, Ladson-Billings and Tate introduced critical race theory (CRT) to education and explained how usingCRTas a conceptual framework could be “applied to our understanding of educational inequity” (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995, p. 55).  AlthoughCRTderived primarily from the work of Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, and Richard Delgado (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001) and is grounded in critical legal studies (CLS),CRThas become a distinct “method of analysis in educational research” and “to fully utilizeCRTin education, researchers must remain critical of race, and how it is deployed” (DeCuir & Dixson, 2004, p. 30).  Ladson-Billings and Tate used an analogy with critical race legal theory to help defineCRT.  

To make parallel the analogy between critical race legal theory and traditional civil rights law with that of critical race theory in education and multicultural education we need to restate the point that critical race legal theorists have “doubts about the foundation of moderate/incremental civil rights law.”  The foundation of civil rights law has been in human rights rather than in property rights.  Thus, without disrespect to the pioneers of civil rights law, critical race legal scholars document the ways in which civil rights law is regularly subverted to benefit whites. . . . We argue that the current multicultural paradigm functions in a manner similar to civil rights law.  Instead of creating radically new paradigms that ensure justice, multicultural reforms are routinely “sucked back into the system” and just as traditional civil rights law is based on a foundation of human rights, the current multicultural paradigm is mired in liberal ideology that offers no radical change in the current order.  Thus, critical race theory in education, like its antecedent in legal scholarship, is a radical critique of both the status quo and the purported reforms.  (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995, p. 62) 

AlthoughCLSchallenged the White system of meritocracy (DeCuir & Dixson, 2004, p. 27),CRTwent further in challenging the ways in which White supremacy and race-based power relationships are produced and perpetuated (Cook, 1995; Crenshaw, 1995; Dalton, 1995; Matsuda, 1995) based on racism as a permanent fixture in society (Bell, 1992, 1995; Lawrence, 1995; Ladson-Billings, 2009), identifying one’s own reality through storytelling or counter-storytelling (Delgado, 1990; Matsuda, 1995), the intersection of race and property rights or Whiteness as property (DeCuir & Dixson, 2004; Harris, 1993; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Ladson-Billings, 2009), and how civil rights legislation and educational reforms are enacted only if they ultimately serve the interests of Whites (Bell, 1980; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995;  Ladson-Billings, 2009). 

CRTprovides a conceptual framework for understanding the inequalities in education that result primarily from race and racism and seeks an accelerated rate of educational reform. CRTfocuses on the ongoing adverse impact of racism and how institutional racism privileges Whites in education while disadvantaging racial minorities.  DeCuir and Dixson (2004) summarize the extent to which racism permeates our society:  

Furthermore, the notion of the permanence of racism suggests that racist hierarchical structures govern all political, economic, and social domains.  Such structures allocate the privileging of Whites and the subsequent Othering of people of color in all arenas, including education.  (DeCuir & Dixson, 2004, p. 27)  

Counter-storytelling uses personal narratives to highlight shared experiences of racism and dispel racial stereotypes especially those held by the majority as DeCuir and Dixson (2004) explain: 

Counter-storytelling is a means of exposing and critiquing normalized dialogues that perpetuate racial stereotypes.  The use of counterstories allows for the challenging of privileged discourses, the discourses of the majority, therefore, serving as a means for giving voice to marginalized groups.  (DeCuir & Dixson, 2004, p. 27)   

Storytelling helps racial minorities to use their experiences of racial oppression to strengthen their identities as would increasing the use of minority discourse in our schools.  

The core tenet ofCRTthat addresses the underlying rational for the inequalities of the educational system is property rights.  Ladson-Billings and Tate reflect the crucial role that property rights plays in our educational system particularly the notion of Whiteness as property in their argument for aCRTapproach to education, “U.S. society is based on property rights rather than human rights” and “the intersection of race and property creates an analytical tool for understanding inequity” (Ladson-Billings & Tate 1995, p. 47).  Ladson-Billings (2009) provides the historical connection of property rights and ownership to citizenship with implications for how the notions of citizenship as well as property rights and ownership affect minorities within the educational system. 

In the early history of the nation only propertied White males enjoyed the franchise.  The significance of property ownership as a prerequisite to citizenship was tied to the British notion that only people who owned the country, not merely those who lived in it, were eligible to make decisions about it.  (Ladson-Billings, 2009, p. 25) 

In this way, Ladson-Billings (2009) explains how property rights, citizenship, and race are crucial to understandingCRT’s conceptual framework for education.  

Property ownership and Whiteness are necessary conditions for property rights which frames property in cultural as well as racial terms such that Whiteness becomes property.  Ladson-Billings and Tate (1995) cite Harris’ explanation of how the reification of race establishes Whiteness as property through Harris’ (1993) functions or rights of property, “(1) rights of disposition; (2) rights to use and enjoyment; (3) reputation and status property; and (4) the absolute right to exclude” (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995, p. 59).  Ladson-Billings and Tate (1995) use theCRTconceptual framework to explain how property rights not only serve the self-interest of Whites but also provide the undergirding for White hegemony over education.  Whiteness, therefore, becomes the ultimate property value that Whites leverage to perpetuate their system of educational advantages and privileges.  

Ladson-Billings and Tate (1995) use theCRTperspective to show that culturally based property rights help to explain how the privileges associated with Whiteness lead to the objectification and subordination of racial minorities especially African Americans within the education arena.  Harris’ (1993) rights of disposition indicate that property rights such as Whiteness are transferable but only when they serve the self-interest of Whites.  Although only Whites naturally possess Whiteness, Whiteness can be transferred such as by rewarding minority students for conformity to “White norms” or punishing minority students for violating “White norms” (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995, p. 59). 

Harris’ (1993) rights to the use and enjoyment of property are reflected in how the curriculum is structured and to whom its access is limited.  Whiteness provides Whites with certain social, cultural, and economic privileges (McIntosh, 1990) including control over who has the right to the use and enjoy school property such as the curriculum (Kozol, 1991).  Ladson-Billings (2009) explains that control over the curriculum empowers Whites to determine which students have access not only to top quality curricula but also honors programs, advanced placement courses, gifted and talented programs as well as those courses that prepare students for college admission and academic success.  Ladson-Billings uses theCRTconceptual framework to define a school curriculum “as a culturally specific artifact designed to maintain a White supremacist master script” (Ladson-Billings, 2009, p. 29).  DeCuir and Dixson summarize White control over the curriculum as having “served to reify this notion of Whiteness as property whereby the rights to possession, use and enjoyment, and disposition, have been enjoyed almost exclusively by Whites” (DeCuir & Dixson, 2004, p. 28).  

“CRTsuggests that current instructional strategies presume that African American students are deficient” and “intelligence testing has been a movement to legitimize African American student deficiency” (Ladson-Billings, 2009, pp. 29, 30).  These assumptions are consistent with Harris’ (1993) functions or rights of reputation and status property.  Ladson-Billings and Tate explain how Harris’ tenet applies to schools, “to damage someone’s reputation is to damage some aspect of his or her personal property” which when applied schools means that “to identify a school or program as nonwhite in any way is to diminish its reputation or status” (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995, p. 60).  Poor urban school districts with concentrations of minority students suffer poor reputations and low status as compared to their White suburban counterparts.  

The school system component that portrays Harris’ (1993) absolute right to exclude as well asCRT’s conception of American educational inequality and racism is the inequitable funding of schools that is based on property values.  Although wealthy school districts can afford a higher level of property taxes with which to fund their schools and provide a higher quality of education based on their higher property values, economically disadvantaged school districts are not able to raise the local property tax revenues necessary to fund a commensurate level of education for their students.  Ladson-Billings and Tate explain that a school’s curriculum is also a form of intellectual property that demonstrates Harris’ (1993) absolute right to exclude, “The quality and quantity of the curriculum varies with the ‘property values’ of the school” (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995, p. 54).  Ladson-Billings and Tate use curriculum to demonstrate how property rights accrue to property owners and the extent to which a school benefits from its property rights is in direct proportion to the amount and kinds of property it owns.  

The availability of “rich” (or enriched) intellectual property delimits what is now called “opportunity to learn – the presumption that along with providing educational “standards” that detail what students should know and be able to do, they must have the material resources that support their learning.  Thus, intellectual property must be undergirded by “real” property, that is, science labs, computers and other state-of-the-art technologies, appropriately certified and prepared teachers.  Of course, Kozol demonstrated that schools that serve poor students of color are unlikely to have access to these resources and, consequently, students will have little or no opportunity to learn despite the attempt to mandate educational standards.  (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995, pp. 54-55) 

In terms of the disparities in school district funding that disproportionately restrict the level, quality, and availability of financial, material, and human resources to low income urban school districts with concentrations of minorities, “CRTargues that the inequality in school funding is a function of institutional and structural racism” (Ladson-Billings, 2009, p. 31). CRT, therefore, seems to argue that Harris’ (1993) property function in terms of education is perhaps the most “powerful determinant of academic advantage” (Ladson-Billings, 2009, p. 32) because it represents the convergence of Whiteness as property and educational inequality. 

According to Ladson-Billings, “We do not have an achievement gap; we have an education debt” (Ladson-Billings, 2006, p. 5).  Ladson-Billings argues for reframing educational inequality inCRTterms by substituting her concept of an “education debt” for the achievement gap notion “as a way of explaining and understanding the persistent inequality that exists (and has always existed) in our nation’s schools” (Ladson-Billings, 2006, p. 4).  Ladson-Billings (2006) uses the national fiscal debt and deficit not only as metaphors for what she describes as the national education debt and deficit but also to demonstrate how the national focus on the educational achievement gap is misplaced.  That is, focusing on the educational achievement gap is a “misleading exercise” because achievement gap discourse “moves us toward short-term solutions that are unlikely to address the long-term underlying problem” caused by racism and reverse the policies that result in educational inequality (Ladson-Billings, 2006, p. 4). 

Ladson-Billings defines an educational deficit as equivalent to an annual fiscal operating deficit or the annual net of excess expenditures over revenues while the national education debt represents the cumulative legacy costs of educational inequality.  

The education debt is the foregone schooling resources that we could have (should have) been investing in (primarily) low income kids, which deficit leads to a variety of social problems (e.g., crime, low productivity, low wages, low labor force participation) that require on-going public investment.  This required investment sucks away resources that could go to reducing the achievement gap.  Without the education debt we could narrow the achievement debt.  …The message would be that you need to reduce one (the education debt, defined above) in order to close the other (the achievement gap).  (Ladson-Billings, 2006, p. 5) 

Although the nation has a long-standing accumulated education debt that has been amassed at the expense of disadvantaged students especially racial and ethnic minorities, the debt can not be eliminated as long as its debt service continues.  Ladson-Billings explains the challenge inherent in debt service that exacerbates the educational equity gap: 

When nations operate with a large debt, some part of their current budget goes to service that debt.  I mentioned earlier that interest payments on our national debt represent the third largest expenditure of our national budget.  In the case of education, each effort we make toward improving education is counterbalanced by the ongoing and mounting debt that we have accumulated.  That debt service manifests itself in the distrust and suspicion about what schools can and will do in communities serving the poor and children of color.  (Ladson-Billings, 2006, p. 9) 

Ladson-Billings’ (2006) notion of the education debt seems to argue that focusing on the achievement gap ignores how the education debt burdens African American students with race-based costs that are imposed by a racially biased school system. 

Ladson-Billings’ education debt concept refutes the achievement gap notion that largely ignores the importance for schools to have the proper educational inputs or financial and human resources with which to achieve the proper outcomes that the achievement gap defines in terms of test scores rather than what students actually learn in school and whether this learning process prepares them for success as adults.  The assumption embedded in the achievement gap is that the blame for schools failing to produce equal test score results among minority and majority students is placed on the students and teachers rather than on the unequal distribution of essential educational inputs.  Ladson-Billings’ (2006) education debt concept, therefore, reframes the achievement gap inCRTterms of educational inequality by shifting the paradigm to the equity gaps in school funding.  

The educational equity gap is a function of the unequal distribution of educational resources among our schools that disenfranchises low income urban school districts especially those with concentrations of minorities.  This results in continuing equity gaps and educational inequality.  In terms of theCRTconceptual framework, closing the educational equity gap by redistributing financial, material, and human resources requires that all schools have the necessary capacity to improve the achievement of all students especially racially, ethnically, and economically disadvantaged students such that every child is able to maximize his/her potential.

Shifting the paradigm to the equity gaps in school funding raises a question that if the amount, quality, and availability of financial, material, and human resources for all schools were equalized by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and unique student needs would this rethinking of how to address educational inequality not only eliminate the annual education deficit and replace it with an education surplus but also ultimately pay down the education debt?   Ladson-Billings suggests that the answer may be found within theCRTconceptual framework.

CRTtakes to task school reformers who fail to recognize that property is a powerful determinant of academic advantage.  Without a commitment to redesign funding formulas, one of the basic inequities of schooling will remain in place and virtually guarantee the reproduction of the status quo.  (Ladson-Billings, 2009, p. 32) 

TheCRTconceptual framework for addressing educational inequality helps to frame the research question of what would constitute a model state school funding formula that distributes the necessary financial, material, intellectual, and human resource inputs equitably so that disadvantaged schools could achieve high levels of educational outcomes such as student achievement, learning, and knowledge-based skills which at least meet or exceed those of affluent schools for all students but especially those who are members of racial or ethnic minorities?  


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