Editor’s note: This is the second in our series of posts commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Darrell Allison is president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.
Is school choice the civil rights issue for the 21st Century? I say it’s always been an issue.
While the battles, faces, and nuances have changed, we are still wrestling with core questions of equality, education as a means of opportunity, and creating a just society.
On Feb. 1, 1960, four young men from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Ezell Blair, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, and David Richmond, were refused service at a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. because of the color of their skin. In response, they turned the nation’s attention to injustice and inequality by remaining in their seats until closing time. The sit-in continued the following day; pretty soon, after significant media attention, sit-ins were happening elsewhere in North Carolina and in cities across the South.
In 2013, four courageous young men followed in their footsteps by bringing attention to educational injustice to the North Carolina legislature. Reps. Marcus Brandon and Ed Hanes (both Democrats), and Brian Brown and Rob Bryan (both Republicans), each took political hits and overcame harsh rhetoric as they jointly sponsored The Opportunity Scholarship Act.
Opportunity Scholarships give students from low-income and working-class families the ability to attend non-public schools that could better meet their needs. The hard reality is, not much has changed since the 1960s when it comes to educational choices. Wealthy parents have always had access to an array of options that many lower-income, mostly minority students do not. This was the justification behind Opportunity Scholarships – to provide the same equality of choice to poor families.
As Dr. King once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere … whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In North Carolina, we have a 30 percentage point achievement gap between non-poor and economically disadvantaged students, a 30 point gap between whites and blacks, and a 24 point gap between whites and Hispanics. If we treat Dr. King’s quote as truth and not a catchy saying, where is the moral outrage?
These statistics reveal a great divide – one that Brown v. Board of Education sought to address in 1954. The landmark case recognized segregation in public education was wrong. However, I contend that Brown v. Board was not simply and narrowly about placing black kids in classrooms with white kids. It was, at its very core, a school choice issue because one of its underlying premises was the quality of education was not the same for minority students compared to their white counterparts.