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Defend the Dream: Education is the Civil Rights Issue

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By Gloria Romero –

Reprinted from Sacramento Bee

We like to name schools after heroes. But how would Martin Luther King Jr. feel about his name affixed to a persistently failing school, where more than a third of kids drop out year after year – across multiple generations?

Millions of California's children are being sentenced to a life at the bottom of our nation's economic ladder. The dream has been deferred – if not outright denied. In 2009 there were roughly 2 million children attending more than 2,000 failing public schools.

Despite pouring billions of dollars in additional funding into these schools, only a few have turned around.

The racial inequalities of this failure are alarming; last year, the dropout rate of California's African American youths increased.

Only 17 percent of African American eighth-graders are deemed proficient in general math. Only 18 percent of African American 11th-graders are proficient in English language arts.

How does a child dream of being a doctor or a scientist without a basic ability in math? How does that child dream of becoming a teacher or a journalist without fundamental English proficiency?

For every 100 African American ninth-graders in California, only 65 graduate; only 25 graduate with the required college prep course work; only 21 enroll in a community college; only nine in a California State University; and only five in a University of California campus. But 40 percent of those on death row in our state are African American.

Children across the state stand in classrooms each morning and recite the pledge, which affirms our commitment to equality and justice for all. Yet statistics continue to reveal that California's is one of the nation's most racially segregated public school systems.

Seventy-five percent of African American and Latino youth are enrolled in secondary schools defined as "intensely segregated." These schools are almost seven times more likely than majority white schools to experience severe shortages of qualified teachers. It took an ACLU lawsuit to force change in the distribution of highly effective teachers – and even then only in a handful of Los Angeles schools.

We cling to a public education system based on "neighborhood schools" – those defined by ZIP code – as though that idea were sacrosanct.

We ended restricted covenants in housing long ago. We can worship in the church of our choosing and shop in any neighborhood.

We outlawed the practice of banks denying loans based on neighborhood – redlining. But those five numbers forbid us to transcend "neighborhoods" in search of a better education.

We ignore that ZIP code predicts who graduates and who drops out. So it's no surprise that charter schools are in high demand, albeit strongly resisted by the education special interests lobby It is not enough to simply "honor the dream." The problems have proliferated for too long.

The good news is that, at a national level, there is rigorous debate and dialogue about bold school reform. Last year, California partnered with President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to advance effective reforms.

A bold "parent trigger" was enacted. Students and parents were given greater choice in public education, with "districts of choice" options and open enrollment opportunities for kids trapped in chronically failing schools. A firewall that stunted the use of teacher performance linked to student outcomes was abolished. Defending and expanding these education reforms is part of realizing King's dream.

As Gov. Jerry Brown prepares to ask the public to contribute billions of dollars in new taxes this spring, he should commit to linking new and much needed funding to overhaul educator evaluation systems, tenure reform, and protections of parent rights to be fully vested with rights on behalf of their children.

Brown can't do it alone. This challenge requires the Democratic Party to stop pretending the dream is intact. Complacency in our party has continually paralyzed real education reform, yet that fact is rarely discussed.

Indeed, the "elephant in the room" in California happens to be a donkey – we Democrats. We must summon the courage to break with traditional allies when they block reform but offer us money for our campaign coffers instead.

Fortunately, the tide is beginning to turn. Across the country, Democratic governors are joining with Republicans to say enough is enough. In Chicago, mayoral candidates are calling for strong parent rights to transform schools in spite of union opposition. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa are challenging the historic hegemony of teacher union politics.

Longtime civil rights activists like California NAACP President Alice Huffman and religious leaders like Eric Lee are standing tall. The times, they are a-changin'.

This King holiday, let's not just say we honor the dream. Let's make it real – and let us start with the most important civil rights issue of our time: education.

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