Michael A. Rebell -

Nov 21, 2022

Through the Prism with Michael A. Rebell

Photo of Michael Rbell

Michael A. Rebell is an experienced litigator, administrator, researcher, and scholar in the field of education law. He is the executive director of the Center for Educational Equity and Professor of Law and Educational Practice at Teachers College, Columbia University. The Center seeks to promote equity and excellence in education and to overcome the gap in educational access and achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged students throughout the United States. For the 2022-2023 school year, he is also a part-time Visiting Professor at the Harvard Law School.

What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?

Although it is not my earliest memory of human connection, my experience with the public engagement conducted by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) in connection with our education funding lawsuit was certainly my most powerful memory and experience with human connection.

CFE was representing the one million students in the New York City public schools in a litigation seeking more equitable and more adequate aid from the state. We realized early on that, even if we won the case, the new funding formula would need to be approved by the state legislature. We were concerned that at that stage the traditional upstate-downstate confrontations (with nasty racial overtones) would likely come into play, and that this would limit or nullify the likelihood of our students actually receiving substantial additional funding, even if we won the case.

We, therefore, initiated a multiyear statewide public engagement process to try to connect with people throughout the state on these important issues. This public engagement process involved holding forums in towns throughout the state at which parents, teachers, students and community members could discuss what a “sound basic education” should be and how an adequate and equitable funding formula could be developed to support it.

The many dozens of forums we held were truly inspiring. Break-out groups consisted of people from affluent and high poverty districts talking earnestly about what education meant to them and what a fair funding formula should look like. Once they understood that the education of their children would not be threatened, people from the affluent areas were open to learning about the inadequate education children in the poverty districts were receiving, and they agreed that these children were being substantially shortchanged. They were also willing to see their taxes raised to provide a quality education for all children. People from the poorer districts also were willing to commit to ensuring that the extra funding they might receive would be well-managed and well spent.

This valuable input built massive support for our lawsuit, convinced virtually every major newspaper in the state to endorse our position and, most gratifyingly, after the Court ruled in our favor, induced the state legislature to adopt a highly equitable new funding formula, with billions of dollars of additional funding for all the underfunded schools in the state, by a virtually unanimous vote.

What values guide your work?

The classical liberal values of liberty, equality, the legal vision of justice and the religious value that all of us are God’s children inspire my work. I truly believe that as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “the arc of history” is bending toward justice and equality. I am very thankful to have found my calling as a lawyer and an education reformer, and that I am able to endeavor every day to do my bit to help that arc dip in a positive direction.

What are you working on right now?

My main efforts in recent years have focused on promoting adequate and equitable school funding and encouraging states and school boards to make a robust civic education a high priority in all of our schools. In the areas of school funding, my main current project is attempting to convince policy makers in New York and other states to establish an independent commission to develop adequate and equitable funding formulas and to monitor their implementation over time.

My civic education activities currently are focused on a number of projects being pursued by the DemocracyReady NY Coalition. My major effort at the moment is to develop a new project on assessing student competence in Civic Readiness. Assessing civic readiness is extremely challenging. Although some work has been done on improving assessment of students’ civic knowledge, there has been relatively little consideration of how civic skills, civic experiences, and civic values can be objectively and accurately assessed. As we all know, what gets tested is what gets taught, so identifying ways to authentically assess the full range of civic competence is of critical importance if civic education is to become the priority that it needs to be in our schools.

Last spring, we decided not to seek a review by the U.S. Supreme Court of our federal lawsuit to establish adequate preparation for civic participation as a right under the U.S. Constitution, and, happily, were able to settle our case in Rhode Island. Since then, I have been working with a group of law students to develop several new litigations that we expect to file in a number of states to encourage advocacy groups and courts in those states to actively implement the right to an adequate civic education to which courts in those states have given lip service, but have not actually been put into effect.

How has the experience of the pandemic affected you and your work?

The impact of the pandemic has been largely negative, but there have been some silver linings. Most significantly, of course, the pandemic has had a tremendous detrimental impact on students and schools. We don’t yet know the full extent of student learning loss and of mental health needs, but it is clear that at the least, many students need extensive services and support to get back on track. The fact that most schools are dealing with multiple crises and priorities has made our efforts to emphasize the importance of civic education that much more difficult. I’m also disturbed about the reduction in public school enrollment and the indications that many students have dropped out or enrolled in private schools and charters. There is, of course, a place for private schools and charters in our education system, but the fact is that for a vibrant civic culture to develop and succeed, the public schools must be at the center of these initiatives.

The pandemic has also contributed strongly to the polarization that continues to plague our country. Dealing with the pandemic has been manipulated and distorted by conspiracy theorists and other anti-civic forces. As a result, reacting to the pandemic has now become a political issue that has further exacerbated the already deep divisions among our people and has made civic discourse more difficult.

The one silver lining I see in all of this is the widespread use of Zoom and similar communication devices. Webinars have largely replaced conferences, allowing us to reach larger numbers of participants at vastly lesser expense. The ready use of Zoom has also allowed us to have meaningful conversations with a broad range of individuals and groups through the state and throughout the country. For example, attendance at our regular DemocracyReady NY coalition meetings and committee meetings has vastly expanded, since there is no longer an issue about people needing to travel great distances from various parts of the state to participate.

What's giving you joy right now? What are you hopeful about?

My greatest joys, of course, come from family relationships and especially watching my three children and four grandchildren thrive and grow.

At this stage in my career, I also take pride in the many accomplishments of my former students, from those who have overcome bouts with mental illness to complete their degrees to others who have achieved such distinctions as becoming a United States senator and making a serious run for a major party’s presidential nomination. I also feel a sense of accomplishment when I see that lawsuits on which I have worked have indeed made some difference in the quality of some students’ educations and hear that books or articles I have written years ago have influenced the thinking and actions of a range of people, some of whom are in places and in circumstances that I had never contemplated when I published these works.

Photo of Michael Rbell

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