“You are all partners and allies in reforming public education,” Secretary Arne Duncan said last week at the National Action Network’s 14th Annual Convention in Washington. “An excellent education for very child is a moral and civic imperative, as well as an economic one. This issue is even bigger than education—it is an issue of social justice and economic security,” Duncan said.
One takeaway from the conference is that the civil rights community has a long and distinguished history of taking courageous action to drive social change, and it will take collective will to make a difference in boosting the nation’s graduation rates and turning around our low-performing schools. “Without equality in education there will never be equality in society. We have to do what’s right for our children and make education a priority,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network.
Secretary Duncan explained that “we have to have a strategy to build an economy that will last—and education is the centerpiece of it.” Duncan praised groups like the National Action Network for their work with communities, and said that “we need to keep fighting together for strong local, state and national investments.”
Concerning Data on Inequities
During his remarks, Duncan highlighted recently released data from the Civil Rights Data Collection that provides policymakers, educators, parents and communities with critical information that will aid them in identifying inequities and targeting solutions to close the persistent education achievement and opportunity gap in America.
The new data show minority students across America face harsher discipline, have less access to rigorous high school curricula, and are more often taught by lower-paid and less experienced teachers. Teachers in schools serving mostly minorities get paid an average of $2,250 less per year. Just 29% of schools serving high minority populations offer calculus compared to 55% of high schools serving non-minorities. African American students are three-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended and expelled than whites. African American students are 18% of the nation’s student population but 35% of the suspensions and 35% of students to be arrested. This is what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
Despite the best efforts of educators to bring greater equity to our schools, too many children, especially low-income and minority students, are still denied the educational opportunities they need to succeed. Duncan explained the need to change laws and policies that require schools to distribute resources more equitably.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream speech,” Duncan noted in closing. “I plan to be on the (Washington) Mall with you—marking the moment—and reaffirming our commitment to end discrimination in housing, in jobs, in education, in opportunity and to realize the American dream for everyone no matter their color, race, religion or background,” he said. “There is so much at stake, and together we hold the key to the future.”
Kimberly Watkins-Foote is Director of African American Communications and Outreach