Wednesday, June 24, 2020

"Education - The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Education – The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time”
June 24, 2020

It is absolutely essential that we have quality education in every ZIP Code,
especially in the poorest ZIP Codes in America. That is the path forward.”
                                                                                                Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) (1965-)
                                                                                                Interview with Tunku Varadarajan
                                                                                                Wall Street Journal, June 20-21, 2020

We are a polyglot nation, a people of all races, ethnicities and religions. We come from the four corners of the globe. But we are who we are. None of us chose to be born where we were. We did not choose the color of our skin. We did not choose our sex, height, or the color of our hair and eyes. We did not choose our physical prowess or our intellectual aptitude. Those are factors we are born with and cannot change; though we can, and we should, enhance them to our advantage. But we can also improve our lives through education. We can read, train and practice. And we can be taught that tolerance and civility are critical to survival as a society, community and nation.

Education has been called the civil rights issue of our time by George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. There are, however, disagreements as to how it is achieved. Democrats believe in the power of money, that more should be spent in poor districts and on inner city schools. Republicans favor choice. Money is important, but dollars expended do not always guaranty a positive result. New York City spends more than twice what the average school district in the United States spends per pupil ($25,199 versus $12,201 in 2017). Yet less than half of New York City students in grades three through eight passed State exams, according to the New York Times. Democrats are influenced by their dependence on the two major teachers’ unions, the National Educational Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Ninety-five percent of the $30 million they spent on elections in 2018 went to Democrats.

Choice is preferred by Republicans. It is offered in poorer districts through charter schools and vouchers. Thomas Sowell, writing in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, noted: “Teachers unions and traditional public school administrators have reason to fear charter schools. In 2019 there were more than 50,000 New York City students on waiting lists to transfer into charter schools.”  Were that to happen, Mr. Sowell adds, that would mean, at $20,000 a student, the transfer of a billion dollars to charter schools. It is little wonder unions fight this trend. The choice of a private school has always been available to the affluent, including most of Washington’s political class; so, it is hard to understand why wealthy white people favor choice for themselves but not for poor Black and Hispanic families.

The release of the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) report for 2018 caused, as the Hechinger Report put it, “considerable handwringing.” In math, the U.S. ranked 36 out of 79 countries and below the international average. As one wag put it, the U.S test scores have been “stable in their mediocrity.” Yet the importance of education to a democracy cannot be overstated. Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for preservation of liberty.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt agreed: “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” Martin Luther King was of the same opinion: “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”

Aspirant parents of Black and Hispanic inner-city students realize that children come first when it comes to education. And they know that that has not always been the case, at least in traditional public schools. In the same article cited above, Thomas Sowell wrote: “In 2019, most students in the city’s (New York) public schools failed to pass the statewide tests in mathematics and English. But most of the city’s charter school students passed in both subjects.”  In fact, students in one charter school, Success Academy, “already pass tests in mathematics and English at a higher rate than any school district in the entire state.” Keep in mind, New York’s charter school students are predominantly Black and Hispanic and live in low-income neighborhoods, and that includes Success Academy. What they have are motivated students, parents who care and teachers and administrators who work without the constraint of unions.

Race has been on everyone’s mind since George Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin on May 25th. What happened to Mr. Floyd should not happen to anyone. But we cannot ignore the fact that young Black males face a far greater likelihood of being killed by another young Black male in their own neighborhood. In Chicago, on Memorial Day weekend, 85 people were shot, 24 fatally. Three weeks later, on Father’s Day weekend, in the same city, 104 people were shot, 14 fatally. Most of the victims were Black, as were most of the killers. Unlike Mr. Floyd, these victims have gone unnamed and unmourned, except by their families. We have a problem with violence, especially in African-American communities. Violence is condemned, but political correctness forbids causes being addressed and realistic prescriptions being offered.

As mentioned above, we are a nation of people from myriad backgrounds. But should we accentuate our differences, be they race, sex or religion, or should we emphasize our common interests, that we are all part of the great American experiment? Should we let ourselves be segregated by race or sex, or should we encourage integration based on the conventions and norms that have helped guide this nation? Politicians like to compartmentalize voters but doing so is divisive. We celebrate Black lives but discard the notion that all lives matter. Five years ago, Tamara Keith wrote for NPR: “’All lives matter’ is a phrase adopted by those who seek to minimize or criticize the movement” (Black Lives Matter). Are those healing words? Don’t all lives matter?

Living in a nation of different races and religions demands tolerance. And tolerance is a function of understanding, and understanding comes from education. Education breeds (or should breed) an atmosphere for respectful debate, which is absent in today’s polarized world. Yet unity is critical to our future. In an August 22, 1862 letter to Horace Greely, editor and publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, Abraham Lincoln wrote: My paramount objective in this struggle is to preserve the union…”

As we find ourselves increasingly drawn into segregated communities by politicians and agitators, we should keep Lincoln’s admonition in mind. While equality of outcomes is a dream that can never be realized, and in fact is an anathema to liberty, we must promote equality of opportunity. Education is the key.  When we fail to provide youth a good education, we deprive them of the human capital necessary for democracy to succeed. Education is indeed the civil rights issue of our time.

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