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Is school resource inequality a civil rights issue?

The first time Jessica Parisi visited a low-income, inner-city school for a volunteer project she was stunned. Classrooms had broken windows. The school lacked air conditioning. Of the several water fountains in the building, just one was labeled safe.

Jessica Parisi thinks the answer is yes, and she’s putting her education and her passion to work to improve the lives of low-income students.

The first time Jessica Parisi visited a low-income, inner-city school for a volunteer project she was stunned. Classrooms had broken windows. The school lacked air conditioning. Of the several water fountains in the building, just one was labeled safe. “I couldn’t believe that the kids in these schools were being held to the same academic standards as the kids in the neighboring well-funded suburban schools, when many of them were coming to school without even having their basic needs met.”

Parisi’s experience with low-income students convinced her that her life’s work would be in education policy. The next step was deciding how to get there. As she finished her degree in political science at the University of Pennsylvania, she chose Penn State's Dickinson School of Law for the opportunity to earn a joint degree in law and education. “Few schools have joint degree programs with law and education, and Penn State’s education program is ranked among the top programs in the nation. The joint degree was a major deciding factor for me in choosing Penn State Law.” 

“Few schools have joint degree programs with law and education, and Penn State’s education program is ranked among the top programs in the nation. The joint degree was a major deciding factor for me in choosing Penn State Law.”  Jessica Parisi '14, joint degree student in law and education policy

Parisi is working on her thesis for her Master’s in Educational Leadership and wrapping up her law degree. She plans to graduate in May.

Her “big picture” goal is to work in education policy with the goal making good on her promise to her students in that low-income school in Philadelphia.  “When I left for law school, I promised my students I was going to school to learn how to make theirs better.” Her master’s thesis with the College of Education will focus on resource inequality in America’s schools, examining the history of school funding lawsuits, which actually started as desegregation lawsuits after Brown v. Board of Education. Parisi plans to examine litigation strategies based on individual state constitutions, because all states have an education clause, as opposed to the federal constitution, which does not.

As a joint degree student, Parisi works closely with Dr. Erica Frankenberg of Penn State’s College of Education, who researches racial desegregation and inequality in K-12 schools and the connections between school segregation and other metropolitan policies. Frankenberg recently co-authored (with Gary Orfield) Educational Delusions? Why Choice Can Deepen Inequality and How to Make it Fair.  

“Penn State is a great place for people who are interested in the latest issues in law and education. Someone working in educational leadership with a law degree will have a much better grasp of remedies, constitutional rights, and many other issues that are critically important in confronting the inequality that still exists in our nation's public schools that enroll a growing numbers of low-income students and students of color — at a time in which a high-quality education is more essential than ever to someone's future success,” said Dr. Frankenberg.  

Parisi is the daughter of two litigators, but she was initially wary of law school. “I am passionate about education and my parents had to convince me that a law degree would be useful to me in education policy,” she said. “After almost three years of law school, I cannot imagine going into education policy without a law degree.”

Interdisciplinary Jobs

Parisi found a series of jobs in the education field. After her 1L summer she was an Urban Education Leaders Intern in District of Columbia Public Schools, where she assisted the Office of General Counsel with policy-related initiatives. As a 2L, she was a certified legal intern in the Children’s Advocacy Clinic, based in Carlisle. Under the direction of Professor Lucy Johnston-Walsh, she drafted county/statewide policies related to child welfare and education, and white papers on educational stability and transportation, cyber school, and truancy. The position brought her in contact with a variety of state and national organization representatives.

Last summer, Parisi landed her dream internship with a summer position at the U.S. Department of Education Office of the General Counsel (OGC).  She spent time working in the Division of Legislative Counsel, the Division of Business and Administrative Law, and also on various special projects with senior attorneys in OGC.  “I was able to work on a variety of very important projects, so I had the opportunity to really see how versatile my law degree will be in the field of education. I worked on Qui Tam litigation related to the False Claims Act; Race to the Top compliance; juvenile justice guidance; charter schools lawsuits; and even helped draft legislation pending before Congress.”

Her dream job, after law school, passing the bar exam, and submitting her master’s thesis, is to pursue a job in education policy. She would love to work in the Department of Education.

 

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