The civil rights issue of our time

The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing in government, in education, and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied. It is here.

So said Senator Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader at the time, on the floor of the U.S. Senate when he generated the needed support from Republicans to overcome a divided Democratic majority to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

More than five decades later, many have been arguing that education reform, particularly to affect improvements in heavily minority, low-income school districts, is the civil rights issue of today.

Last week, in an eerie reminder of the past, Senate Democrats voted to filibuster Covid legislation proposed by the majority Republicans, which included school choice provisions – the beneficiaries of which would be thousands of students of color.

The problem currently is the lack of bipartisanship, at least at the national level, for education reform that otherwise existed in the mid-1960’s when Republicans joined with northern and Midwestern Democrats in a majority coalition to support desegregation and voting rights for citizens of color.

Black, Latino and other minority children need elected leaders like Everett Dirksen today to advance education reform and justice in their own communities. The most effective policy to that that end is to enable parents to choose the best schools, public, private, or religious for their children to attend.

Democratic leaders of the past, including presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and Senator and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, helped make civil rights a reality for black and minority citizens. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama championed the expansion of educational opportunity through charter schools, which began in Democratic-run states such as Minnesota and Massachusetts in the 1990’s.

Sadly and ironically, education reformers are virtually non-existent among today’s Democratic Party leaders, including presidential nominee, Joe Biden, who recently said charter schools “are gone” if he becomes president (a stance he more recently reiterated). The House Majority Democrats, in their proposed coronavirus legislation, prohibit any funding for non-public schools to assist them through this economic crisis.

By contrast, President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans have increasingly embraced school choice policies, including enabling families to choose private and religious schools for their children. For example, Senate Republicans, as part of their coronavirus relief bill, direct about 10 percent of the $70 billion in funding proposed for elementary and secondary education go to non-public schools, commensurate with their share of total K-12 enrollment.

In addition, more than 100 Republican House members co-sponsor legislation to create “Education Freedom Scholarships” proposed by the Trump administration; and GOP Senators Tim Scott of and Lamar Alexander recently introduced the School Choice Now Act to similarly provide K-12 scholarship opportunities primarily to low-income students to obtain the same educational options as children from wealthy households.

For all the talk of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris being the most “progressive” administration since Franklin Roosevelt, what could be more truly progressive and efficacious than providing immediately to disadvantaged students a quality education currently accessible to children of the wealthy?

In the three generations since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that segregated schools were unconstitutional as a violation of the equal protection of the laws, not a single politician of either party would argue against this outcome.

One of the modern means to bring about genuine educational equality and justice is school choice, yet an entire political party, at least at the national level, rejects this approach.

One reason for the Democrats rejection of educational choice using private and parochial schools is the political power of the public school teachers unions, which are their political allies. At least 94 percent of donations from teacher unions have gone to Democratic politicians since the early 1990’s. This vice grip has now led Democrats to increasingly abandon public charter schools, which many of them once championed.

As teacher unions become more militant in their opposition to educational choice, they are increasingly resisting re-opening of schools, which suffocates their private school competition. Politicians like California Gov. Gavin Newsom, by keeping schools closed to in-person learning, especially harms non-public schools dependent on tuition from enrollment.

Leaving aside the financial support from teacher unions, many Democratic politicians believe that more funding of district public education is the best means by which to ensure educational equity and justice. But that agenda is not at variance with giving children access non-public schools, since doing so does no harm to public schools.

Democrats and Republicans should reject “zero-sum” arguments, which come from teacher unions, and understand that expanding school choice not only brings immediate benefits to disadvantaged students, it does not inhibit simultaneously improving traditional public education.

Today’s civil rights issue to improve education, especially for high-needs communities of color, is an issue whose time has come, said the late Sen. Dirksen. School choice and other education reforms are sorely needed, as children in education hellholes throughout the country are waiting for this generation’s Democratic version of Everett Dirksen. Will s/he emerge?

Peter Murphy is Vice President of the Invest in Education Coalition (@PeterMurphy26).

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