Feb. 11, 2021 - The 2021 University of Houston Law Center Spring Workshop Series, "Race, Social Justice, and the Law," continued last week, featuring Professor Osamudia James of the University of Miami School of Law. James discussed her paper, “Risky Education” and sparked an engaging discussion with Dean Leonard M. Baynes and Law Center professors and students regarding parents’ roles in the education system, their choices, and how they affect society as a whole.
James opened the lecture by discussing the various factors that comprise risky education, specifically the responses of parents and caregivers to certain vulnerabilities in the school system, such as teacher quality and racial disparities. One of the main points she argued is that in the American school system, being a “good” parent can sometimes mean being a bad democratic citizen.
During her discussion, James examined two main factors in her argument: choice and merit. Choice, she said, is facilitated by state delegation of their educational responsibilities, thus making parents almost exclusively responsible for strong educational opportunities for their children. Merit is the idea that admissions criteria, particularly for elite educational opportunities, are necessarily neutral and objective.
“Together, those values of choice and merit form education policy,” she said.
In her lecture, James examined two real-life examples of risky education. The first was the effect Hurricane Katrina had on schools in New Orleans - mainly the fact that all schools became charter schools and forced parents to compete for access. The second was selective school admissions in New York City, where students of color are systematically denied access to selective schools.
”The same groups consistently lose over and over again,” she said. “And, risk becomes racialized.”
In her paper, James argued that schools are inherently democratic institutions, and as such will produce winners and losers in the course of governance. When those losses, however, are disproportionately distributed to minority students, democracy is undermined.
“We saw who was able to do online school during COVID-19 and who wasn’t,” she said. “It’s all about access.”
During the question-and-answer portion, faculty and students brought up points such as access to information, credential-seeking, and how to change the way people view education and the world itself.
In response to a question about Black middle-class families, James explained that even if they move to the “right” neighborhoods and go to the “best” colleges, Black children and young adults still face structural obstacles.
She went on to mention that, ultimately, near-exclusive responsibility is put on parents, and parents are ultimately trying to mitigate education risk. James also raised the question of if we are to have this system, how do we better enable parents to navigate it? At a micro-level, she suggested starting by implementing universal test preparation. At a macro-level, she advocated for cultivating a “shared fates” approach to education that recognized the interdependence of students and families in our education system.
“An insistence on finishing first in the race means no one else can even get to the middle,” she said.
James is a Professor of Law and Dean's Distinguished Scholar, as well as the Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Community, at the University of Miami School of Law. Her focus is on social justice and public interest, and she is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University Law Center. She has appeared in numerous media outlets and publications, including recently in The Washington Post for her arguments surrounding risk in education and the effects of parental choices.