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"I'm asking you to not say 'Bush' or 'Dayton.' It's disrespectful."

On Monday, I presented my views on the racial achievement gaps in education at the Utah Achievement Gap Coalition rally. After I spoke, an elected state official voiced his disdain for my reference to our nation's president and a state representative by simply their last names when mentioning the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and Utah's HB1001.

He claimed to agree with the gist of my remarks: 1) that (Rep. Margaret) Dayton's HB1001, recently passed in the special legislative session, is a measure that jeopardizes federal funding and fails to address the racial achievement gaps that persist in Utah public schools; 2) that the primary arguments voiced by detractors of NCLB rely on similar states' rights arguments used by segregationist Southern states in the 1950s and 1960s; and, 3) that amidst the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education last year, the federal intrusion argument championed by (Rep.) Dayton and State Superintendent Patti Harrington is inadequate and irresponsible.

Yet, he "asked" me to be "nice" and be "respectful" of their respective positions.

I equate this "culture of niceness" to silencing opposition and quelling any meaningful democratic debate.

This is all fine, if you belong to the Republican Party or are a member of the majority population. Nice does not work too well if you are an undocumented immigrant trying to drive to work after (Gov.) Huntsman signed the driver's privilege card bill.

It's not nice if you are a student of color attending school in a state that refuses to shine a light on the problem of institutional and systemic racism. It's not nice when you attend inadequately funded schools and learn that the Legislature has passed a bill that jeopardizes badly needed federal funding. Respect is earned. Nice is relative.

What the coalition is striving to accomplish is authentic, meaningful accountability. Its ultimate goal is closing achievement gaps that exist between white students and students of color. Moving away from standardized testing as the sole indicator of success and instituting a system where every child counts and is counted (unlike the proposal to disregard student groups of fewer than 40) are methods for achieving this goal.

Realizing that Utah is the reddest of the red states (almost 74 percent of the electorate supported [President] Bush in 2004), the state leadership is in a unique position to lead nationally by implementing an accountability system that closes gaps, providing adequate resources to schools and rejecting deficit views of communities of color. Utilizing a states' rights argument without a legitimate, operational accountability plan is disingenuous at best.

The state's "accountability" plan, U-PASS, was first adopted in 2000. It is not slated for full implementation until 2007, according to (State Superintendent) Harrington and the state's director of evaluation and assessment.

Is it nice to make students and communities of color wait while an accountability system is developed? States' rights do not trump human and civil rights, especially when the state has nothing to stand on.

Now, I'm asking (Gov.) Huntsman, (Rep. and Public Education Chair) Dayton, (State Superintendent) Harrington, and the rest of the Utah Legislature that voted for HB1001 to embrace their duties as public servants for all Utah schoolchildren.

I'm asking them to consider the following questions: What if roles were reversed and white students were at the bottom of every category of educational attainment and achievement? Would the state Legislature and educational leaders be preoccupied with being nice?


Dr. Enrique Alemn, Jr. is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Utah. He is a member of the Utah Achievement Gap Coalition and the father of three children, two of whom are students in the Salt Lake City School District.