Who Says Education Reform Is the ‘Civil Rights Issue of Our Time’?

Little Rock, August 20, 1959. Rally at state capitol, protesting the integration of Central High School. (Image via Oxford African American Studies Center, courtesy of the Library of Congress)

“The civil rights issue of our time.” “The civil rights issue of this generation.” “The civil rights issue of this era.” You’d have to be living in a soundproof booth to avoid the echo of civil rights talk these days. Only it isn’t coming from civil rights leaders. (Just as the language of “choice” isn’t coming from liberal feminists anymore.) It’s coming from Juan Williams (watch) and Steve Brill (listen) around issues of education reform – particularly school choice and, per Slate, “breaking unions’ grip on public education.” 

John McCain made the very same claim about education during his presidential campaign. Here’s a little Q&A from the Saddleback Church Civil Forum on the Presidency hosted by evangelical pastor Rick Warren in August 2008, the first forum held with the candidates after they’d become their parties’ presumptive nominees:

WARREN: Let’s talk about education. America ranks 19th in high school graduations, but we’re first in incarcerations. Everybody says they want more accountability in schools.

MCCAIN: Um-hum.

WARREN: About 80 percent of America says they support merit pay for the best teachers. Now, I don’t want to hear your stump speech on education.

MCCAIN: Yes, yes, and find bad teachers another line of work. (APPLAUSE).

WARREN: You know, we’re going to end this, you’re answering so quickly. You want to play a game of poker?

MCCAIN: Can I — choice and competition, choice and competition, home schooling, charter schools, vouchers, all the choice and competition. I want — look, I want every American family to have the same choice that Cindy and I made and Senator Obama and Mrs. Obama made as well, and that was, we wanted to send our children to the school of our choice. And charter schools work, my friends. Home schooling works. Vouchers in our nation’s capital works. We’ve got thousands of people in Washington, D.C., that are applying for a voucher system. New York City is reforming.

I go back to New Orleans. They were — as we know, the tragedy devastated them. They have over 30 charter schools in the city of New Orleans, and guess what? It’s all coming up. It’s all coming up. It’s a simple principle, but it’s going to take dedicated men and women, particularly in the teaching profession, to make it happen.

And by the way, here — I won’t go any further, but the point is… it is the civil rights issue of the 21st century

McCain said it again during his speech at the Republican National Convention. (Read.) And he said it again during the third and final presidential debate against Barack Obama. (Click.) It was one of the few ways in which McCain didn’t try to distance himself from George W. Bush in Election ’08. After all, it was Bush who first said it, in January 2002.

Now, I think it’s kind of awesome to hear Republicans talk about education as a civil right. And yet I can’t help feeling there’s some hoodwinking going on when Steve Brill starts attributing the notion to Democrats (by which he means Democrats for Education Reform) and President Barack Obama.

This is from the transcript of Brill’s appearance on the Diane Rhem Show, during which he responds to a 62-year-old black grandmother in Cleveland who says, “I know Republicans want our children back into separate and unequal”:

BRILL

11:30:49
The only thing I will say is that it’s not the Republicans now who are leading the reform movement. Barack Obama’s not a Republican, Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, is not a Republican. There are dozens of examples….
So it’s a much more mixed situation, you know, than just a bunch of Republicans, you know, trying to go after unions. And there are many very sincere people in the Civil Rights community, Barack Obama being one of them, who consider this to be the Civil Rights issue of our time, fixing the schools. (emphasis mine)

To be sure, Obama’s turn from the education plan he laid out in 2007-08, with advice from Stanford University education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond, to the one being put forward today, under the leadership of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has soured many public school teachers and parents on his administration. (They thought they’d elected Obama on education. But they got something more like candidate McCain.) The bait-and-switch pissed enough people off that thousands gathered on the White House Ellipse on July 30, 2011 for the Save Our Schools Rally and March.

I was there. One of the most passionate speeches I heard was made by Jonathan Kozol, the author of Savage Inequalities and Illiterate America. His was a fiery, fist-pounding show that hinged on a damning accusation aimed straight at Arne Duncan:

Secretary Duncan, Arne Duncan [CROWD BOOS] has turned his back entirely on the precious legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. [APPLAUSE] Instead, he’s very, very busy trying to do Plessy v. Ferguson. Mr. Duncan, listen to me. Mr. Duncan, separate and unequal has never been successful. It didn’t work in the century just passed and it will not work in the century ahead. And anyone who tells himself otherwise is lying to himself and to the people of America.”

According to Kozol, Arne Duncan is restoring a system of segregation to America’s public schools. Steve Brill would like to have Democratic voters believe that, too. (Especially the ones who belong to the politically omnipotent teachers’ unions.)

But it’s a far more serious accusation coming from Jonathan Kozol. Because if Obama’s base starts to believe that the resegregation of public schools is the doing of the Obama administration, boy, the Democrats are in big trouble in 2012.

So let’s dig a little deeper, for the sake of all my new friends in the SOS March twitterverse. This resegration problem didn’t start with Arne Duncan. We’d have it even if Obama had appointed Linda Darling-Hammond to the post of U.S. Secretary of Education. The problem is the Supreme Court.

Rewind to the 2007 NAACP Presidential Primary Forum, held July 12, 2007. The question is about the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down school integration plans put forth by school boards in Louisville, Ky. and Seattle, Wash. in June of that year. This Q&A is with then-candidate Barack Obama. The transcript is from OnTheIssues.org.

Q: In light of the recent anti-integration Supreme Court decision, please tell us what would you do to promote an equal opportunity and integration in American public schools and how would you ensure that the courts would hand down more balanced opinions

A: The Supreme Court was wrong. These were local school districts that had voluntarily made a determination that all children would be better off if they learned together. The notion that this Supreme Court would equate that with the segregation as tasked would make Thurgood Marshall turn in his grave. Which is why I’m glad I voted against Alito & voted against Roberts. But let’s remember that we also have a crisis in all our schools that have to be fixed, whether they’re integrated or not. We’ve got to have early childhood education. We’ve got to fix crumbling schools. We’ve got to have an excellent teacher in front of every classroom. We’ve got to make college affordable. The Supreme Court doesn’t have to order that. We can do that ourselves.

Did you get that? Obama said, “whether they’re integrated or not.” This is the kind of progressive pragmatism that defines Barack Obama’s leadership. He is not an idealist. He never was. Idealists, like Jonathan Kozol and Martin Luther King, Jr., set out a vision of greatness – a dream – and measure the world against it. The world never measures up. Progressive pragmatists, like Barack Obama, deal in the world as it is, and figure out practical ways “of making sure that the world we leave our children is just a little bit better than the one we inhabit today.”

(There’s the finer line dividing groups like Parents Across America (PAA) from Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). There are other, fatter ones, of course. But if you get past DFER’s Whitney Tilson “ripping” people like Gary Orfield of the UCLA Civil Rights Project and dismissing Jonathan Kozol’s concurrence on the civil rights slant against charters as “dimwitted,” you see someone who believes he’s doing the right thing.)

Back to Obama’s response to the NAACP. Beyond expressing his own pragmatism, he’s saying we need to take responsibility. We need to correct the problem with our schools. We do. We can do it without the Supreme Court. Because the Supreme Court that made integration the civil rights issue of Martin Luther King’s time, and Vernon Jordan’s time, and Thurgood Marshall’s time? That’s not today’s Supreme Court. So – and this is me talking now – if the NAACP wants to take the fight against the segregating effects of the market segmentation that results from “choice and competition” to the Supreme Court, public education is finished. Game over. We’re going to keep getting the same 5-4 result. Just take a look at the mug shots in the justice lineup at the bottom of this Oyez piece on Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education. (Read and scroll.)

Here’s another twist. During the current Baltimore City mayoral campaign, candidate Frank Conaway has said on numerous occasions that he came out of segregated schools, and he came out pretty well. He said so again at the League of Women Voters debate at the Enoch Pratt Library last night. Some blacks look back fondly on the education they got before Brown v. Board. It’s odd, isn’t it? Independent schools trip over themselves to introduce diversity into their classrooms while parents in public schools have to fight to hold on to integrated classrooms. Baltimore-son Thurgood Marshall probably is rolling over in his grave. (Did you feel that earthquake?)

To sum up: In 2002, Republicans appropriated the language of civil rights for the purposes of radically changing public education as we know it. They kept doing it in 2007-08. Now the Right is telling the media that it’s not only the Right that feels education reform is a civil rights issue, but the Left feels school choice is a civil rights issue, too. If the Left feels that way, and we start fighting these battles through the courts, we’ll lose. And anyway, there are black Democrats who actually don’t much care to guard against the disintegration of Brown v. Board.

Here’s what I think: The Milton Friedman-inspired ideology of market-based competition that’s behind school choice is anathema to the whole idea of civil rights – which implies a great deal of the kind of government protection that the libertarian freedom fighters Juan Williams has been hanging out with feel are obstacles, if not shackles, to the American way.

I mentioned market segmentation. It’s a different animal from segregation. In injecting competition and choice into the public school ecosystem, we’re going to Social Darwinist route. Only the strong survive. But more than that, those who survive are those who find a niche. Competition and choice imply a free market, where there is no regulation. That means no affirmative action policies, no quotas, no demands by government for private or semi-private entities to address inequity. I know this is going to get me into trouble, but it means niched schools where white gentry moms and aspirational middle class black and brown moms strive to send their kids. And generic public schools where the weak and the poor wind up.

If we feel this country is in the midst of creating an educational landscape far from our highest ideals – and I do – the answer won’t come from the courts. And it won’t come from the White House. And it won’t come from corporate philanthropists or Democrat hedge fund managers. It won’t come from union leaders, either.

The power is idling at the grass roots. It’s time we rip it up.

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12 Responses to “Who Says Education Reform Is the ‘Civil Rights Issue of Our Time’?”

  1. It’s the fake issue of our time for sure. The evidence is overwhelming none of those reforms will work. None.

    So what is this really about? Privatizing a trillion dollar government service. It’s a great scam for people involved, it will do absolutely nothing for struggling children. Nothing.

    http://www.bluejersey.com/tag/EdReform101

  2. I agree with the message that this change will occur at the grassroots level, but it is an uphill battle. It is also going to be an expensive one, with republican governors supported by millionaires and billionaires. The conversation on education has moved from those who are educators & advocates of public education to profiteers. And there are lists upon lists of contributions to our own state’s republican governor, senators and representatives–even some democrats are on the list–from people who would gamble our children’s futures. We are looking at a dismantling of the great system of public education. And I am perplexed at how to fight this battle. My state senator expanded a bill for vouchers to include more children; our governor was the keynote speaker at a school choice convention. They don’t listen to facts or to the pleading of their own constituents.
    Would love to get some ideas on how to make voices heard. It is an exhausting fight, and they are counting on us to give up.

    • Downbutnotout –

      I started writing this blog because I saw a lot of moms (and a few dads) in my neighborhood jumping on the charter bandwagon without ever setting foot in our zoned public school. So I decided to buck the trend and do just that. When my son was 6 months old I made an appointment with my school’s principal. She didn’t show up. I persisted. I got other parents interested. We went to the local public library to hear from a mom in Chicago who wrote a book called How to Walk to School: A Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance. I asked a question that prompted a representative of the city school system to talk to me. He reached out to my principal and we met. Eight months later we’re on each other’s speed dial and the parent group a small number of us formed is getting bigger every day. There are huge national issues and trends to think about. It’s easy to hand-wring over them. Then there are the tiny, seemingly insignificant things that anyone can do to make a school better – one school. Just pick one school. Have fun. Make a stink when necessary. And never give up.

  3. “I know this is going to get me into trouble, but it means niched schools where white gentry moms and aspirational middle class black and brown moms strive to send their kids. And generic public schools where the weak and the poor wind up.”

    No problems for me there. This is a fact. Schools have been segregated in inner cities across the country for the last fifteen to twenty years. Why are people sumising there is all of a sudden a segregation issue as more parents exercise their responsibility of finding or starting a better school for their kid or kids in their neighborhood? Should people keep/send their kids to bad schools to politically correct? Frankly, the folk mentioned above won’t send their kid to even a decent school if the neighborhood its in is sketchy. This is about poverty, not just schools. It never has or will be only about schools.

    I predict that as this recession/depression snatches brown people back into poverty from the working class, or out of the comfortable middle class which allowed them to rub pennies together to leave remnants of poverty behind and send their children to private schools – we will see a drastic improvement in public schools. Both they and the middle class white moms trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents will demand more for their children to the beign on the status quo politicians existence.

  4. I think current there is an inherent tensions between the notion of choice on the one hand, and the need for free, open access public schools on the other. Even before the rise of charter, magnet, and home schools, there was a division between most Americans, who sent their kids to public schools, and wealthier Americans, many of whom sent their kids to elite private schools.

    But whether it’s just two choices or a multiplicity of many choices as we see today, it’s a corruption of American education if the free, open access public schools are not good. If they are good, then choice can be a positive thing. If they’re not, then choice only degrades them further. Obviously, too many of them are not good, though I’m not sure there’s an easy fix for that.

    Once upon a time, many parents were loath to send their kids to Catholic schools because they were understood to be quite inferior to local public schools. We’ve come a long way in the wrong direction since then.

    Let me know if you’d like to do a guest blog at my site some time.

  5. “The Milton Friedman-inspired ideology of market-based competition that’s behind school choice is anathema to the whole idea of civil rights”

    This informative article argues to the contrary: “The Secret History of School Choice: How Progressives Got There First.” http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jrf27/pdf_files/Progressive_History_of_School_Choice.pdf.

    • Stuart,

      That’s a fantastic article. You should share it with the folks who wrote this: http://www.gazette.com/opinion/liberty-122757-future-often.html. Their arguments represent the dominant thinking behind today’s school choice movement. I wish it were progressives who were behind it. But it isn’t.

    • Stuart: Thanks very much for that article. I would love to track it against the history of schools here in Baltimore. I recall at least one school, the Park Heights Street Academy that I now see fits into the description of “free Schools”. I have been discouraged lately by the “sides” real and imagined in national discussion of ed reform, with name calling and generalizations on both sides. For instance charters here are very much a part of the public system, all very different but in general see themselves as part of public schooling, not an alternative to it.
      I have supported our district’s work with new schools and charter schools and actively support leaders of these schools in my work. I am suspicious of voucher proposals out of concern about the equity issues, especially for children with special needs. It is was very interesting to learn more about the history here. I hope in the coming months tell some of the story of school improvement in Baltimore, and the contributions of traditional and charter schools and schools with other forms of partnerships. Baltimore’s experience has something to add to the national debate. A few small steps so far on the blog at supportingpublicschools.org or @spsoc. Thanks again. history always helpful for perspective.

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