Education is a civil rights issue today just as it was in the 1950s during the initial years of the historic civil rights movement. Back then, the challenge was breaking down the barriers that prevented black children from attending public schools. Today, the issue is virtually the same but with a new twist.
Southern public schools in particular discriminated against African-American children by denying them entrance into public schools and universities. Today, African-American, Hispanic, and other minority children, along with white children living in urban America already attend public schools. Today’s problem is that our government, both federal and state, are discriminating against public school corporations by siphoning off revenue through voucher programs that allow families to transfer their children to charter schools and other private and parochial schools.
Our government and the corporate reformers who support and encourage them are claiming that charter schools the other alternatives are doing a better job than our public schools and they cloak their advocacy under the blanket of “freedom of choice.” While they promote the development of charter schools and encourage families to take advantage of vouchers they attack our urban public schools with the charge that they are failing and that the blame for such failure rests on the shoulders of public school teachers. Therein lies the fallacy of current corporate and government education reforms.
The simple but compelling fact is that the teachers who populate our charter schools and other private and parochial alternatives are educated in the same colleges and universities and are license pursuant to the same state standards and qualifications as their public-school counterparts. How can we think that whether or not a qualified and licensed teacher will magically perform at a higher level is a function of the fact that they teach in a charter, private or parochial school rather than in a public school in the same community?
The problem is not “choice” and no right thinking American would deny the importance of giving families choices. The problem is that while luring students and their associated revenue away from our public schools our government is making no effort to address the real challenges that such schools face. As they heap more and more blame on teachers and schools for low scores on state competency exams and reduce the revenue upon which these schools depend, more and more teachers are leaving the profession. In many cases it is the most experienced and most capable teachers that are fleeing the field of education making it that much more difficult for the abandoned schools to meet the needs of their students.
Right now African-American citizens and other parents concerned with the quality of their public schools are in possession of a wonderful opportunity to change the reality for their children. Community leaders from each of these groups, working separately and in concert, need to rally their communities in support of their public schools and teachers.
Concurrently, public school teachers, both individually and collectively, need to reach out to the leaders of the local communities and offer to work together to rise to the challenges facing public education. Make no mistake. A partnership between public school teachers and the parents of their communities working together to serve the best interests of children will transform public education as surely as rain will make the flowers grow.
At the national level, we need high profile leaders of all of our minority communities to link together and take a stand on the issue of public education with the same commitment that we witness anew in the movie Selma. We beseech these leaders from business, government, entertainment, and professional athletics to come together on this most important issue and to reach out to the American Federation of Teachers, to the National Education Association, and to such groups as the Bad Ass Teachers Association. At the same time, we need the leaders of the AFT, NEA and BATs to reach out to community leaders.
Not since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues and supporters marched to Selma has there been an issue as important to the future of our nation and its children as exists today with the crisis in public education. Never has there been an opportunity to bring about such transformational change as exists right now, in cities across the United States of America.
If you are reading this message, today, please pass on this call to action to everyone you know. It may be the most important thing you can do for your country.