Frederick Douglass. Condoleezza Rice. Martin Luther King, Jr. Clarence Thomas. Ida B. Wells. Shirley Chisholm.
All of these leaders will receive renewed national attention during this Black History Month. And all have something else in common: their emphasis on education.
None of these leaders would have been able to achieve the remarkable victories or overcome the incredible obstacles they faced without an education.
I share their passion for education equality. I’ve fought for it all my life.
My own battle started in 1961, when I joined 25 other black students to integrate a segregated junior high school in Richmond, Virginia. And it hasn’t stopped since. I fervently believe all children—no matter their race, religion, income, age, or address—have an equal right to receive an excellent education.
That’s more than opinion. It’s the law of the land. In the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling that ended school segregation, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is ‘a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.’”
Nearly 65 years later, however, it’s painfully obvious that education in America remains very unequal. Too many schools are failing their students. Schools that squash children’s dreams, beat down their hopes, and diminish their expectations have created a crisis in the black community. Today, in many large U.S. cities, more than half of all African American students never graduate high school.
All children deserve to get the tools they need to make their dreams come true. But high school dropouts typically don’t have them. As a result, it’s much harder for them to get a job, much less earn what those who do graduate make. They’re also more likely to commit crimes and be victimized by crime. Far too often, the dreams they once had turn into nightmares.
I was fortunate. Even though I was kicked, punched, and stuck with pins during the integration battle, I was able to attend a better school. Too many kids today don’t have that chance. Instead, anti-reform forces block them from going to better-performing schools.
Who are the anti-reformers? A determined cartel of teacher unions, education bureaucrats and career politicians. They make a lot of money from the current system in the form of union dues, salaries and political contributions. And they view any attempt to change that system as a threat and anyone seeking to advance education equality as their enemy.
Just ask U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Testifying before Congress, DeVos explained her goal is “ensuring that every student has an equal opportunity to receive a great education.” But rather than be hailed for seeking the equality promised decades ago, she’s being attacked by those who want things to stay just as they are.
If you are wealthy, connected, or elected, chances are your child goes to or graduated from a great school. But if you live in a poor urban neighborhood, your child is much more likely to go to a failing school, a school where more than half of all students can’t read or write well, have low math scores, face the daily threat of bullying and violence and won’t graduate.
Do these sound like “equal terms” to you?
I say—no more! The crisis of failing schools has afﬂicted too many Americans for too long, and it will never end so long as we continue to deny every child their equal right to an excellent education.
And so I call on all caring Americans to join me in this ﬁ ght. It’s a part of our heritage as a people—and of our inalienable rights as citizens of this nation.
[Kay Coles James is the president of The Heritage Foundation. You can follow Kay on Twitter @ KayColesJames.]