One legend’s call to today’s civil rights leaders: Erase the lines we have drawn in the past

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After listening recently to RiShawn Biddle’s podcast calling on civil rights leaders to change their approach to education reform, I was reminded of an unpublished column written by one Florida legend in the civil rights movement, the Rev. H.K. Matthews. Matthews shared the commentary with me and others after several civil rights groups last summer demanded that President Obama reconsider the core elements of his education agenda, which included the expansion of charter schools and the closure of consistently low-performing schools. These iconic groups, which included the NAACP and the National Urban League, had good intentions in presenting their education policy framework, but Matthews found their arguments irrelevant today. Their call for equal opportunity, he wrote, was “limited by some familiar boundaries of generations past — those of neighborhood and family income.”

Matthews, whose story is chronicled in the biography Victory After the Fall,  marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., and was jailed 35 times for his many protests of segregated lunch counters in northwest Florida. In recent years, he has joined the call for more educational options for poor families, an effort he called “a natural extension of the civil rights movement.”  In this column, which has never seen publication until now, he asks his brethren to erase the lines we have drawn in the past:

The African-American leaders who convened in Washington last week [July] to call educational quality the “civil rights battle of this generation” have it at least half right. Unfortunately, their call for equal opportunity seems limited by some familiar boundaries of generations past– those of neighborhood and family income.

As President Obama put it: “What’s not working for black kids and Hispanic kids and Native American kids across this country is the status quo … What’s not working is what we’ve been doing for decades now.”

The civil rights groups that have stepped forward to call for changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act include such prestigious organizations as the National Urban League and the NAACP, and their intentions are entirely noble. But I, too, have walked the Selma bridge and slept in jail cells to protest racial injustice, and what I see missing from these new demands for educational equality is the vital role of parental choice. How do you demand parental engagement without empowering all parents to choose the schools that best meet their children’s needs?

In their six-point plan for educational justice, the groups insist that “states should be required to ensure that every low-income child … has the guaranteed right to enroll in a high-performing school.” But the fine print is that the school must be operated by a public school district. In other words, these distinguished community organizations are taking off the table some of the very types of community-based, mission-driven schools that might work for some students.

Florida is a prime example. More than 1,000 private schools last year gave options to 29,000 children whose household income qualified them for free or reduced lunch. These schools run the gamut from prep to faith-based, but hundreds of them speak to the kinds of learning environments that my friends in the civil rights movement see as hopeful.

Miami Union Academy is one such place. It is a small K-12 private school that serves a poor and mostly Haitian community in north Miami, and 85 percent of its students are Haitian-American. These students are taught that academic achievement comes only through discipline and hard work and that anything less is simply unacceptable. The graduation rate is an astonishing 96 percent, with 90 percent of those heading off to postsecondary education.

Here’s the kicker. Half of the roughly 300 students at Miami Union would be denied this opportunity but for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. That’s a program, financed by dollar-for-dollar state tax credits, that gives underprivileged children something they have historically lacked – options.

I know why my brethren try to steer the debate clear from these private options. They don’t want to offend some of the fine public school teachers who oppose such choices, and they are determined to toe the Democratic Party line when they can. But what they don’t appreciate is that these politics are not clear, and they are irrelevant to the current generation for whom we fight.

In March, I walked with more than 5,500 students, parents, educators and activists who rallied at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee to push for a bill expanding the reach of Tax Credit Scholarships for low-income students. In turn, the bill was adopted by a combined legislative margin of 122-34, with the support of nearly half the Democrats and a majority of the Black Caucus. Sen. Al Lawson, a leading African-American Democrat, told his colleagues at the time: “I know in my community how these kids are doing and how much they have been able to benefit from this, and I will tell you that you should just embrace these kids.”

Not incidentally, the Florida legislation was also formally endorsed by the national office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group founded by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Its message is worth repeating: “This is not about public schools versus private schools. This is about reading and writing and diplomas and degrees. This is about finding the place where every single student learns the best. This is about fulfilling that very American promise of equal educational opportunity.”

I have devoted my life to the cause of social justice for all people, particularly black people, and I’m tired of where we have drawn lines in the past. Public education now offers an expanding assortment of learning options, such as magnet programs, fundamental schools, online courses and charter schools. For this new generation, the old formulations of public and private are irrelevant. Certainly, for the least among us, we must put all our educational assets on the table.

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