Education Week - May 17, 2017 - 23
Is Education the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time?
By Dave Powell
eorge W. Bush said it as he warned us about
"the soft bigotry of low expectations." Barack
Obama said it. So did Mitt Romney, Arne
Duncan, and John McCain.
And now Donald Trump is saying it, too.
In his first joint-session address to Congress,
President Trump promised that "our children
will grow up in a nation of miracles" and
added the familiar kicker: "Education is the civil rights issue
of our time." He said it right before he announced his plan to
ask Congress to pass new legislation supporting school choice.
His idea of a school reform "miracle," apparently, is to convince
America to accept choice, rather than equity, as the controlling
idea in public education.
All of which raises the question: Is education the civil rights
issue of our time?
I'm going to cut right to the chase: The answer is no. Or, at
least, not really. If you ask me, civil rights is the civil rights
issue of our time. While there is no doubt in my mind that
education is a civil right, we shouldn't narrow the scope of
civil rights to begin and end with education.
I'm positive that making our schools better could do much
to address the racial, social, and economic barriers to justice
that many Americans face. I'm also certain that if we did
more to address the larger social issues we face-such as
continued racial discrimination, a fraying social safety net,
the role of money in politics-our schools would improve
immediately. This is, of course, because the relationship between public schools and society is a symbiotic one. Schools
both reflect and shape the societies in which they exist,
meaning that healthy schools make healthy societies, and
vice versa. We should recognize the role public education can
play in addressing social problems.
But what we need now, more than ever, is a comprehensive
approach to solving these social problems that acknowledges
that schools can only do so much, especially after having
served as political punching bags for so long.
Instead, we're being offered a false choice between a public
education system that is truly accessible and accountable to
the American public and a system that shares nothing in
common with the one that Adlai Stevenson once described
as "the most American thing about America."
When President Trump invokes the language of civil
rights, he is hoping to convince us that we need to be liberated from an oppressive system. Really, though, the promise
of unfettered school choice threatens to push us all further
apart, creating the kinds of divisions that truly make oppression real.
The truth is that Trump's brand of school reform is not
about protecting the rights of underserved students at all.
It's about giving parents, many of them wealthy, white, and
well-connected, the option of taking their tax money-our
tax money-and withdrawing it from the public space. In a
democracy, people have to be able to come together in public
spaces to share their concerns, and they have to be willing to
hear each other out. For that to happen, we all have to put
ourselves occasionally in the place of others and see things
from someone else's perspective. That's exceptionally hard
to do when everybody you go to school with looks and thinks
exactly the way you do.
How did it come to this? The language of civil rights has
certainly been part of the conversation in education for as
long as most of us can remember-and rightfully so. The
brave efforts of the young people at the forefront of school
desegregation-like Linda Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest
Green, and Ruby Bridges-helped transform public schools
into places where our most difficult social issues were untangled in classrooms, lunchrooms, and locker rooms. Our
society has been made better for it.
These are the true heroes of civil rights-not Donald
Trump, Betsy DeVos, or others who invoke the language of
civil rights but do little else to advance the cause. We once
saw freedom as the ability to go to school and learn; now
it's being defined as the ability to choose a different school,
much like you might choose a plumber or an electrician, or
to choose not to attend school altogether.
They want us to believe that we do what's best for society
when we first do what's best for ourselves, but this gets it
exactly backward. The truth is that society is improved not
when we think first of ourselves, but rather when we put
others first. The children who integrated segregated schools
in the 1950s and 1960s were not just enduring violence and
vitriol for their own advancement, but for everyone who
came after them. They were faced with formidable risks,
and they took them anyway. Secretary DeVos was not taking a risk when she wrote checks from her bottomless bank
account to Republican candidates and causes, and President
Trump's not risking anything by cynically co-opting the language of civil rights to push the idea that true freedom is
not the freedom to be educated but the freedom to choose
not to be educated. We all pay a price for it, though.
In the end, motives matter. People who are serious about
protecting, preserving, and extending civil rights are the
ones working to strengthen public schools, not weaken them.
They're the ones fighting every day for equal access and enhanced resources and for a strong curriculum that engages
students in the study of social problems and encourages them
to try to solve them. They're the ones who remind us that
education is a fundamental right for all, not a privilege to be
reserved for a few. Those people are the true heroes of civil
rights. We'd do well to follow their lead before it's too late. n
of school reform
is not about
students at all."
DAVE POWELL teaches education policy and the politics of education at
Gettysburg College, in Pennsylvania, and writes the opinion blog The K-12
Contrarian for edweek.org. Previously, he taught high school social studies.
EDUCATION WEEK | May 17, 2017 | www.edweek.org | 23