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Let's Stop Comparing Education to the Civil Rights Movement

Is the quest for racial justice for black people in America really so over that we need a new civil rights issue?

This week, Mitt Romney said that fixing education "is the civil rights issue of our era. It's the great challenge of our time." The statement implies that students are being purposefully and systematically denied an education, and calls to mind the infamous photo of one of the Little Rock Nine, Elizabeth Eckford, as she attempted to enter Little Rock High School and was turned away by the National Guard as Hazel Massery, one of her white peers, screamed at her. This comparison may make for a moving stump speech across political lines, but these flawed platitudes need to stop.

We've spent the last decade hearing similar statements from a bipartisan cast of political players. President Obama explicitly invoked Brown v. Board of Education and the Little Rock Nine in his speech to the 2009 NAACP convention. "There's a reason the story of the civil rights movement was written in our schools," Obama told the crowd. "It's because there is no stronger weapon against inequality and no better path to opportunity than an education that can unlock a child's God-given potential."

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has also made the reference innumerable times over the past four years. He took to the pages of The Daily Princetonian, Princeton University's campus paper, to tell students they should take a noble path of service and become teachers because education “has the unique power to transcend differences of class, race, sex and ZIP code" before repeating that common refrain: "education is the civil rights issue of our generation."

Back in 2009, President Obama and Secretary Duncan even teamed up with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Rev. Al Sharpton to declare that education reform is the "civil rights issue of the 21st century." And let's not forget four years ago in August 2008, when John McCain sat down with pastor Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church Civil Forum for the Presidency and waxed poetic about his support for charter schools, home schooling, and vouchers. "I won’t go any further," McCain said of his plans for education, "but the point is…it is the civil rights issue of the 21st century."

So, who is the architect of this school of thought? We might be able to lay the blame on President George W. Bush, architect of the disastrous No Child Left Behind Act. In 2002, on the Saturday before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Bush referred to education as "the great civil rights issue of our time.” The rest is history.

There’s no denying that our schools need to improve and that closing the opportunity gap is a necessary goal, but we're living in a time when the prison industrial complex has resulted in more black men being incarcerated today than there were slaves in 1850, when black people still have to “whiten” their names on their resumes, and when an innocent 17-year-old black teen can be shot to death for seeming suspicious. Is the quest for racial justice for black people in America really so over that we need a new civil rights issue?

Not according to prominent education historian Diane Ravitch. In 2009, when the education-civil rights comparisons started to proliferate, Ravitch wrote in her Education Week column that such statements are "a publicity campaign, not a civil rights campaign, nor even a campaign for better education." She continued:

The civil rights movement was about dignity, justice, and equality—not just in schooling, but in every realm of life. It was about opening the doors that were shut by law and that blocked access to almost every aspect of public life. It was about securing equality of access to education, but also to jobs, health care, housing, public transit, public facilities of all kinds, and a decent life. It was about equality before the law and the right to vote.


Plus, if politicians seriously believed the connection between education and civil rights, said Ravitch, they'd "have a plan to do something about de facto segregation; they would launch a program to make sure that every child had access to good health care and started school ready to learn; they would coordinate between the schools and other government agencies to make sure that families had access to job training programs and social services and the basic necessities of life." They’d also make sure that class sizes were "reasonable," support teachers instead of bashing them, stop acting like poverty doesn’t matter, and "actually have a civil rights agenda other than raising test scores."

Despite everyone claiming that education is a civil rights issue, those changes have yet to take place in America. Yet, our politicians pull the “civil rights issue” card out of their back pockets and use the emotionally-charged language of the movement because it’s a good soundbite that makes them seem like they’re getting serious about fixing schools. Unless they're willing to truly make a commitment to real reforms that will make a difference for all children, they should stop.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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