Friday, January 22, 2010

Michael Paris' "Framing Equal Opportunity"

Michael Paris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Framing Equal Opportunity: Law and the Politics of School Finance Reform, and reported the following:
In the United States, reformers seeking progressive policy change often turn to law and courts. How do such reformers go about translating their moral visions and policy goals into plausible legal claims and arguments? What difference does it make for the politics of reform that would-be change agents choose to speak one way rather than another in legal settings? How can we best understand this process of “legal translation” and the difference that it makes?

Framing Equal Opportunity examines two controversial and far-reaching litigation-based campaigns to change the distribution of resources for education. It follows lawyers and activists in New Jersey and Kentucky as they negotiate the complicated political terrain of educational change in their respective states. The book shows that the kinds of legal argument that lawyers choose to make matter not only for their success in the courtroom, but also for the kinds of fights they face in the community at large. It also offers a general theoretical framework for understanding legal translation and the politics of social reform.

There isn’t much of a relationship between Page 99 of the book and “the quality of the whole.” Page 99 drops us into the middle of the New Jersey case study. Here, by way of a summary of a 600-page opinion by an administrative law judge, I am explicating the New Jersey reformers’ “compensatory vision” of education and its successful translation through pre-existing legal norms and categories. For example, consider these two paragraphs from Page 99 (the “ELC” is the Education Law Center, a Newark-based law reform organization):
The ELC’s case about what it called “program disparities” across rich and poor districts was highly detailed; it proceeded under fully eighteen subheadings, including such things as “science education,” “guidance and counseling,” and “class size.” The ELC’s main purpose was to fix the standard of “adequacy” in two ways: first in relation to the needs of the urban students and second in relation to the resources available to already advantaged suburban students. Moreover, it was here that the ELC sought to make vivid and lifelike the conditions of education and their social meaning for administrators, teachers, and students in the ghettos. A few illustrations of the ELC’s approach will provide a sense of its emotional appeal.

State regulations defined “artistic expression and appreciation” as a “state education goal.” However, art education received rather short shrift in poorer urban districts. Whereas elementary school children in the wealthy districts of Montclair, Princeton, and Scotch Plains/Fanwood received “art instruction at every elementary school with certified teachers,” Camden did not even employ any art teachers at the elementary level.
Read more about Framing Equal Opportunity at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue