Education: The Final Frontier for Civil Rights


[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May, 2010]

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

In the 1960s Americans were in awe about space travel. A new young President had challenged a nation to send a man to the moon. Our imaginations were energized as thoughts of space exploration filled our heads.

By May of 1961 America had launched her first manned space flight. In June of 1965 Edward H. White walked in space. Then in 1969 Apollo 11 toke Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon. As the world was glued to their radio or TV set Neil Armstrong uttered the often quoted “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

At the same time the Civil rights movement was making great strides. The March on Washington in 1963, The Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Thurgood Marshall’s appointment to the Supreme Court in 1967 and the election of Edward Brooke as the 1st black elected to the US Senate since reconstruction made the 60’s a decade of political and social policy achievement. In the areas of science and civil rights our country moved forward at a steady pace.

However in the entertainment world our imaginations and thinking were light-years ahead of the governments space program. As noted by a new TV program that debuted in September of 1966 called Star Trek. We were exploring galaxies not the moon and mapping new solar systems and “boldly go[ing] where no man had gone before.” We were “exploring strange new worlds” five years before we ever landed on the moon. Our imaginations were stoked by the quote above mentioning space was that final frontier.

Unfortunately our education system, although integrated, has not followed our imaginations. In fact as the years went by our public education system has become more and more static. One size fits all approach has caused our schools to perform at new levels of mediocrity.

In the state of Illinois parents are lobbying for school choice because of the dysfunction of our schools. According to the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI):

Only 32 percent of Illinois public elementary school students are reading at grade level. That number slips to 30 percent by the end of middle school. By the time they reach the 12th grade, only 20 percent of public school students possess the requisite skills to succeed in college. At least 25 percent of students in Illinois’s public high schools drop out of school altogether.

The above facts are despite the 25 billion dollars spent on education annually. Yet, teachers unions, and politicians continue to call for more money for education while they block attempts to break Illinois’ cycle of mediocrity.

In recent months there was some hope for Chicago school children and parents. One of the ardent supports of the “more money mantra” changed his mind and decided to support school choice. State Senator James Meeks, Pastor of Salem Baptist Church, came to realize that more money for public schools would not improve the under-performing schools nor change the plight of many of the students trapped in those schools. Senator Meeks championed a bill in the Illinois legislature that would establish a pilot voucher program for kids who “attend the lowest-performing public schools in Chicago to be given the opportunity to instead send their children to a private school, should they see fit” according to IPI. The bill was heralded by Democrats and Republicans, unfortunately after passing in the senate the bill failed in the House.

However, the evidence is clear that, according to researchers, in the publication School Choice Issues in their “Monopoly Versus Markets: The Empirical Evidence on Private Schools & School Choice” issue voucher students do better when allowed to attend the school of their choice. Researchers found an increase in math scores between 5 to 11 percentage points above the control group. More specifically, in New York after 3 years black students had combined reading and math scores 9% above their control group. In Washington D. C. and Dayton after 2 years the combine reading and math scores were 6.5% above their control group. All across the nation researchers are finding that once you allow parents to choose where their children should attend school their kids do better, the parents are more involved and even the public schools begin to improve with competition from private schools.

The same results occur when kids are allowed to attend charter schools. Case in point, in Springfield Illinois Ball Charter School is an elementary school that enrolls students from all across the district. According to the Illinois Policy Institute “Ball students outperformed the district average in 80 percent of comparable measures of student performance; notably, low-income students outperformed district peers in nine of 14 match-ups.” IPI states that there are “nearly 300 Springfield students on a waiting list to get into Ball Charter because of limited seating and the school’s excellent reputation.”

Another more astonishing case in the success of charter schools is that of Urban Prep Academies founded in 2002. In 2006 they open their doors in Englewood neighborhood of Chicago Illinois. They are the only all boys school in Illinois. What is remarkable about the school is that while Illinois public high schools graduate less than half of its students Urban Prep announced this year all 107 students of its first graduating class have been accepted to a four-year college. When these young men started the academy only 4% of the seniors were at reading grader level as freshman. The motto of the school is “we believe.” They are making believers out of many skeptics.

Unfortunately, even with the successes of Ball Charter School and Urban Prep there is a cap on Charter schools in Illinois. Thus, many parents will not be able to get the quality education they desire for their children. Many children will be stuck in schools that either cannot or will not perform at a level that will allow its graduates to fulfill their destiny. Someone once said, “that prior to 1954 they won’t let blacks [us] in their schools, now they won’t let us out.”

Education is the new frontier for civil rights. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand the need for educational choice. Black and Hispanic children have been sentenced to spend their most formational years in schools that breed crime and below standard achievement. Society pays for the high level of dropouts (Chicago graduates 49.7%) with crime rates through the roof (Chicago homicides since January number 115)* and public school violence makes parents afraid to send their kids to school.

You would think that 41 years after the Apollo 11’s flight to the moon and 46 years after the Civil Rights Act we would not have these problems. The ingenuity that put a man the moon should be used to create all types of schools; private, public charter, vocational, confessional, parochial, performing arts schools and homeschooling.

Then the activism of the Civil rights movement would ensure that all students, regardless of their ethnicity, have access to these schools. If we did this, then the future of our kids would only be hampered by a student’s imagination and hard work.

I would then venture to change the opening quote to the following: Education: the final frontier. These are the goals of parental school choice. Its life long mission: to challenge our students to master reading, math and science, to study history and civilization, to use their imaginations to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Freedom to chose whatever school we want to attend is in the spirit of the Civil Rights movement. They marched, protested and stood their ground to ensure that their children and children’s children would be free. Real freedom comes from the emancipation of the mind and that can only take place when schools compete for students and must excel to remain open. School choice equals freedom and freedom opens the door of opportunity.

If we can expand school choice then Neil Armstrong’s quote would finally come to fruition for urban students, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” School choice has the potential to change our society exponentially and unleash the creative potential of our kids and teachers. The question is: Are we ready to go where many have not gone before? Are we ready to explore new types of schools and go where public education could never take us? As shown by the various levels of achievement vouchers and charter schools have gained in various cities and municipalities it is time to go full speed ahead!

*homicide rate is over 500 since January of 2016.

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May, 2010]

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