Today, many school reformers have adopted the slogan that “education is the civil rights issue of our time.” President Barack Obama referred to education as the “civil rights issue of our time” during a speech before Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in 2011. Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used the same phrase to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In a 2015 speech delivered at a black church close to Ferguson, Missouri, Hillary Clinton echoed a similar theme when she declared, “Civil rights in America are still far from where they need to be. …Our schools are still segregated.”
But democrats are not the only ones using this slogan. In 2002, then-President George W. Bush called education “the great civil rights issue of our time” in a speech honoring the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even Mitt Romney called our failing schools “the civil rights issue of our era” during his 2012 campaign for president, and Sen. John McCain called education “the civil rights issue of this century” during his nomination acceptance speech to the Republican convention on Sept. 4, 2008.
Such language is unsurprising. Reform-minded people in every generation typically adopt a slogan to define their relationship to a moral issue of the day. “Keep us dry” was a popular slogan of the prohibition period of the 1920s. “Make love, not war” was important to the 1960s generation. Contemporary education reformers say “education is the civil rights issue of our time” to capture the injustice of the current system – students stuck in schools that fail to prepare them for a career or college – and the need for reform. But this pithy slogan inadvertently promotes two problems, both historical.
First, the rationale for providing young Americans with an opportunity to obtain an education is not a new “civil rights” issue. In 1779, Noah Webster said “education should be adopted … in the minds of the American youth the principles of virtue and of liberty and inspire them with just and liberal ideas of government.” It took several decades for everyone in America to obtain an education, and it was not an easily fought battle.
Second, the fight for a quality education is much older than the modern civil rights movement. This is particularly true for black children whom reformers hold up as one beneficiary of their moral cause. As far back as October 1787, a group of enslaved and free Africans submitted a petition to the Massachusetts General Assembly for access to the “free schools of the town of Boston.” Black parents fought for a quality education for their children decades before civil rights became synonymous with black rights. Irish and Italian immigrants in cities lobbied for quality education for their children in the late 19th century, as did Hispanics and Native Americans during the 20th century.
The impetus behind calling education the “civil right issue of our time” is understandable. For one thing, the phrase links this generation to a worthy cause for which previous generations fought and died. But the end goal of education is not civil rights alone if, by civil right, we mean breaking down barriers to opportunity. The end goal of education must also be ensuring that our children have an opportunity to be participants in today’s knowledge economy. However this end goal tends to be overlooked in reformers’ use of the civil rights slogan.
The challenge with labeling all education-related problems as a civil rights issue is that the solutions to fix them are overly bureaucratic. Take student achievement, for example. Our 2015 reading and math results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress were unpleasant: Only 35 percent of fourth graders and 33 percent of eighth graders scored at proficient or better in reading, and only 39 percent of fourth graders and 32 percent of eighth graders scored proficient or better in math. Results for each subgroup identified a major achievement gap between white and Asians students and everyone else.
Reformers conclude that the achievement gap needs a civil rights solution. This usually results in new federal and state government regulations for schools and teachers, demands for more public dollars or the implementation of a new curriculum. All of these solutions focus on inputs, often times without strong measures for holding adults (including parents) accountable for the outcomes.
Moving forward, reformers should be careful not to box education into a civil rights narrative. Reformers on the left should refrain from doing so because it reduces education to an “us” and “them” conversation, and rarely do civil rights solutions result in implementing free market principles to improve our schools. Reformers on the right should refrain from marketing school choice as a civil right if the goal is to have a broad appeal to new political constituencies. Rather, reformers on both sides should remember that education is not an either or proposition – it takes access, quality, resources and results to ensure that all children are able to succeed in life.