Education: The Final Frontier for Civil Rights


“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 would, among other things, challenge a nation to send 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 propelled astronaut’s Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon. As the world stood by glued to the radio or TV set Neil Armstrong uttered the oft-quoted “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

At about 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 marked the 60’s as a decade for both political and social policy achievements. It was clear by this time, especially, in those areas of science and civil rights, that our country showed promise for moving forward at a steady pace.

However, our imaginations and thinking proved to be light-years ahead of the governments’ space program as the entertainment world debuted a new TV program in September of 1966 called Star Trek. In it, we explored the galaxies, which lie beyond the moon, while mapping new solar systems to “boldly go[ing] where no man had gone before.” We were “exploring strange new worlds” three years before we ever landed on the moon. Our imagination for the “great beyond” was stoked with space providing the final frontier.

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

For example, 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. (Full quote here)

These alarming facts are despite the 25 billion dollars spent on education annually. Yet, state legislators, teachers unions, and politicians alike continue to call for more money for education reform: while systematically blocking attempts to break Illinois’ cycle of mediocrity.

Happily, in recent months there has been renewed hope for Chicago school children–and their parents. One of the state’s most ardent supporters of the “more money mantra” changed his mind and decided to support school choice. State Senator James Meeks, Sr. Pastor of Salem Baptist Church located in Chicago’s predominately African-American Pullman Park community, now agrees that more money alone will not improve the under-performing schools in his district, nor will it 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. Although both Democrats and Republicans heralded the bill it unfortunately after passing in the senate, failed in the House.

Needless to say, the evidence is clear: according to researchers in the publication School Choice Issues “Monopoly Versus Markets: The Empirical Evidence on Private Schools & School Choice” 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 research has shown 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 Academy founded in 2002. In 2006, they opened their doors in the tough Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. This is the only all boys school in Illinois. What is remarkable, is that while Illinois public high schools graduate less than half of its students, Urban Prep announced this year that 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 reading at grade level in their freshman year. 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 Academy 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 are 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.”

And now, in the 21st century, education is the new frontier for civil rights. It doesn’t 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, which not only breed crime–but also fall well below the standards for achievement. It’s society who pays for the high level of dropouts. Chicago graduates a mere 49.7% of enrolled students: with crime rates through the roof (Chicago homicides since January 2010, number 115) and public school violence so horrific that parents are 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. Many would argue, that ingenuity that put man on the moon should have been first put to use right here on planet earth to encourage the next generation of thinkers through all types of school options: private, public charter, vocational, confessional, parochial, performing arts schools and home-schooling.

Only then will the activism of the Civil rights movement ensure that all students, regardless of their ethnicity, have access to quality education. If we do this, the future is only bound by a student’s imagination and hard work.

Finally, if I had it my way, I’d 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 new civilizations, to use their imaginations to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Undoubtedly, the freedom to choose whatever school we’d like to attend rises from the very spirit of the Civil Rights movement. Those who marched, protested and stood their ground did so to ensure that their children, and their children’s children, would be free. Ironically, true freedom comes through the “emancipation of the mind”–and will only be fully realized as schools compete for students, who must excel, to remain open. School choice equals freedom; and freedom opens the door to endless opportunities.

If we’d commit to making school choice a priority; then, Neil Armstrong’s quote would finally come to fruition for every student, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” School choice has the potential to change our society exponentially, while unleashing the creative potential of our children 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 both vouchers and charter schools have already accomplished throughout various cities and municipalities all over the nation I say, now is the time to move forward full speed ahead!

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