Who Governs our Schools? Local Elections and the Rights of Non-citizen Immigrant Parents

I had a disturbing experience at the voting booth this morning.  As I checked out after voting for Cambridge’s City Council and School Committee, I casually asked if one has to be a citizen to vote in local elections in Cambridge.  I thought that if any city in the United States would allow noncitizens to vote in local elections, Cambridge just might.  One poll worker rolled her eyes and said with an incredulous tone, “Yes, we definitely want you to be a citizen to vote!”  Her colleague then chimed in, “It’s just the immigrant issue; you know what I mean?” Now I was confused.  I was in Cambridge, after all.  Was he being sarcastic?  Did he not realize that there are plenty of immigrant citizens?  I put aside the issue of immigrant citizens and simply said, “Well, if people live here, why shouldn’t they have a say in its governance?”  Then he clarified, “It’s just those illegals we’re worried about.”  Confusion again!  Now I realized the first response was not sarcasm.  I looked at my daughter who was excited by her first experience in the voting booth and decided not to engage a lengthier discussion.  But I did say, “Why shouldn’t someone who lives and works in Cambridge vote in Cambridge local elections?”

The question sat with me all morning.  I did an admittedly cursory search on noncitizen voting rights in the United States, and I found that during the 19th century the US Supreme Court ruled that in some instances noncitizens can have the right to vote.  And, indeed, Cantabrigians moved to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections in 1998.

Beyond the city council election and perhaps more absurdly, why shouldn’t all parents of public school children—including immigrants, documented or not—be eligible to vote in school committee elections?  Why would non-parent citizens have more say in School Committee elections than non-citizen parents, whether documented or undocumented?  Among parents, why should parent citizens who send their children to private school have more voice in decisions about public schools than immigrants whose children the system serves?  27% of Cambridge public schools’ students have a first language that is not English—this is not a precise measure of the number of noncitizen parents but suggests something about the significance of immigration in our community.  Surely the disenfranchisement of non-citizen parents in school decision-making at the city level impacts where resources are allocated and what issues are addressed citywide.   It’s an egregious form of inequality in education.

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A discussion on What Merit Means

Come and hear more about my latest research!

CMEI Colloquium
What Merit Means: Undergraduates at elite institutions in Britain and the United States make meaning of the admissions process

Natasha Warikoo, Assistant Professor of Education

Respondent: Phil Lee, D3
November 10, 11:30 am-1:15pm

Larsen G08, Harvard Graduate School of Education

How do students attending elite universities make meaning of their admission, given both strong competition as well as public debates over the underrepresentation of disadvantaged groups?  In this paper I compare the meaning-making of undergraduates attending two elite American and one elite British university with respect to admissions meritocracy and the university’s role in promoting diversity in the student body.  British students emphasize two key drivers of success in admission to Oxford: (1) ability, or being “smart”; and (2) training, best done at private schools and in middle- to upper-classfamilies.  United States students, on the other hand, more frequently frame meritocracy flexibly such that, for example, athletic skills count toward meritocracy and hence justify athletic recruits.  This meaning-making stems in part through different institutional goals articulated by students, which resonate with the institutional goals expressed by representatives of the respective universities.  For British students, admissions focuses on individual skills and potential to succeed in one’s subject, and takes a universalistic perspective, eschewing any race- or class-based affirmative action. This allows students clear focus in their views, while preventing room for discussion on how to reduce the underrepresentation of particular groups on campus.  In the United States, students emphasize the importance of a diverse cohort of students that the admissions office carefully constructs to create a rich educational environment.Although we find important cross-national differences, most students express support for their respective universities’ admissions processes, legitimating their own success in those processes.  The paper draws upon 144 one-on-one in-depth interviews with undergraduates attending Harvard University, Brown University, and University of Oxford.

Love of Learning vs. Literacy Instruction: Kindergarten literacy instruction in private and public schools

I have no background in literacy development, but I have been keenly observing my 5-year-old as she develops into a reader.  Last year, I was keen for her to start recognizing words and sounding them out, the way I was taught.  I also made a special effort to encourage her to write when I could—birthday cards for parties, and thank you cards to friends and neighbors who had brought gifts were always sure bets.  I secretly wished her day care would spend more time on teaching her to read and write—she is ready and fully capable, I thought.  But, now that she attends an urban public kindergarten where the instruction in literacy is a primary focus, I find myself swinging the other way.  I am so glad she spent her days playing and running around in day care, and yearn for another year of that environment for her.

At my first kindergarten parents night, I was surprised when I learned that kindergarteners were expected to be reading by the end of the year.  I am learning that private schools are different.  A friend whose daughter attends a private school lamented to me that her daughter “just plays all day and isn’t learning anything”.  Another, whose child attends a different private school, told me that the private school her child attended told her “not to worry” when her daughter was not reading by first grade, and that the child would read when she was ready.  I’ve realized that there has been an interesting shift in what constitutes academic rigor and learning in schools as it relates to social class.  In the past, urban schools were perceived to be places where little learning took place, while private schools emphasized skill-building and academics.  Today, however, during the early childhood years private schools seem to be holding on to the importance of play and the development of a love of learning, while schools serving less advantaged populations are responding to a new system of “standards and accountability” that seems to push them to focus on the basics.  So, urban public school students are expected to be reading by the end of kindergarten, but private school kindergarteners are not.

What are the long-term consequences?  The private school students inevitably catch up.  The friend’s daughter couldn’t read in first grade was reading chapter books by second grade; I imagine the school suggested that because of their patience when she was ready she soared, and developed a love of books.  I worry that the early skill-building in urban public schools, while potentially successful in developing literacy at an early age, may turn kids off to learning and the joys of discovery through project-based learning.  Do policy-makers, educators, and parents have the patience to allow disadvantaged children the same opportunities to emerge slowly as readers in the same way?  If so, what kinds of assessments or accountability measures would work better than the ones imposed today?