The Right Fight for Education

A gulf remains today in our nation between the "haves" and "have-nots," and there are few examples as glaring as the disparities that exist in our public schools.
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Across the nation, moviegoers have lined up for screenings of the new film Selma. The movie recounts the courageous actions of thousands of ordinary, disenfranchised African-Americans in the South, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and now-Congressman John Lewis who took to the streets of Selma, Alabama, to secure the right to vote for all Americans.

For generations young and old, the movie offers a critical reminder of the long and difficult march for racial and economic justice. Audiences today may understand why the third Monday of January is a federal holiday and know Dr. King from his speeches, but Selma provides us with a glimpse of the many struggles of those whose sacrifices helped secure groundbreaking civil rights victories -- and reminds us of the work still left to be done.

A gulf remains today in our nation between the "haves" and "have-nots," and there are few examples as glaring as the disparities that exist in our public schools. Decades ago, civil rights leaders fought to desegregate our nation's schools. Today, 60 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision officially invalidated racial segregation in our nation's public schools, students are facing a resurgence of de facto segregation by both race and socioeconomic status. And, we continue to witness pervasive educational inequalities, especially in the inequitable distribution of school funding to low-income communities of color.

These disparities in school funding are just as destructive as the injustices of previous decades. And while much ado has accompanied recent discussions about annual testing in ESEA, too little has been done at the federal level to stimulate more equitable inputs for schools serving poor children and children of color.

States can change the historical inequalities that continue to undermine equal rights. California recently passed a new funding law that allocates all funding equitably, based on student needs. This year, Mississippi has a chance to become another model of progress. The state's voters will cast ballots in the coming year on a measure that will require the state legislature to fund all public schools at equal levels for the first time in history.

What some schools consider to be basic aspects of a quality educational experience, including access to courses like Algebra I, Geometry and Advanced Placement offerings -- in states like Mississippi -- including New York, Pennsylvania, Florida and Nevada--they are more of a rarity than the norm in schools with high African-American and Latino populations.

Meanwhile, 14 years after Congress renewed ESEA as 'No Child Left Behind' under President George W. Bush, Congressional leaders have pledged to "fast track" the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The bill could help expand education equity for all children. The question is whether our leaders take seriously the need for all children to receive the quality public education they deserve.

When President Lyndon Johnson, a former school teacher, first signed ESEA into law in 1965 on the heels of the Civil Rights Act, he and many others envisioned the law as a component of the 'War of Poverty' -- convinced it would help to advance quality education as a lever out of poverty.

Unfortunately, ESEA has begun to focus more on narrow testing and sanctions, including closing schools in low-income communities, rather than on investing in and improving these schools. This is why, along with eight other civil rights organizations, we recently released recommendations on how our leaders can make the policy changes necessary to advance equal access to resources and quality instruction in our nation's schools.

To move us forward as a nation, the newest version of ESEA must expand beyond a focus on testing, data transparency and interventions in struggling schools. Assessments, relevant data and remedies to improve schools must be accompanied by appropriate and equitable school investments, ensuring each student has access to key opportunities like small class sizes, up-to-date textbooks, science labs, art, music and well-supported and qualified educators. These targeted supports must be responsive to students' unique needs; they must improve curriculum and teaching and end overly punitive and discriminatory discipline practices, like school-based arrests and out-of-school suspensions. Anything short of this guarantees that, for yet another generation of children, the American dream -- and Dr. King's dream -- will remain out of reach.

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