Education is the civil rights issue of our generation, or so say today's conservative "education reformers." I suppose this retired schoolteacher should feel flattered to be told members of my profession hold the country's social and economic future in our hands. But I'm not. The pet education slogan of the right is wrong—and dangerously misleading. Civil rights is still the civil rights issue of our generation. Education is definitely in the mix, but a host of civil wrongs cry out to be addressed, and no great teacher or great school is capable of righting them.
Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, blatant and subtle forms of racial, ethnic, religious and gender discrimination are alive and well in the United States. We still have a separate-but-unequal justice system. Many immigrants and their families, legal and undocumented, live in a constant state of fear. The legal rights of the LGBT community are a moving target. Women still make lower wages than men. Voter suppression laws designed to deprive people of their right to vote are sprouting like noxious weeds across the country.
Schools aren't going to fix those problems.
Here's what's interesting and telling about people who want us to believe education is the civil rights issue of our generation. They don't much care about civil rights. According to them, we've already realized Martin Luther King's dream, and it's time to replace "We shall overcome" with "We have overcome, so let's move on, shall we?"
Except for education, which is the one place they say the civil rights struggle continues. Why this one exception? Because blaming education for all of society's ills has so many benefits for conservatives.
The political right would love to take all our social and economic problems, wrap them up in a neat little bundle and dump them inside the schoolhouse door. No need to address problems like bias toward minorities. No need for remedies to the widening income gap and worsening economic stratification, which hit minorities so hard. Blame it all on the schools for not teaching those kids how to fit into society or giving them the skills they need to qualify for high-paying jobs. Fix the schools, and the problems will go away.
The school privatization movement invokes civil rights to mask the self-serving nature of its agenda. It's not because we want to shrink government, bust teachers unions and move education into the private sector where we can make big money, they maintain. We're doing it for all those little black and brown children whose futures are being crippled by failing "government schools," teachers unions and over-regulation. Move the poor little children to charter schools and voucher-supported private schools, and all their problems will be solved.
Their arguments are smoke and mirrors. The reality is, addressing the causes of social and economic inequality in this country will do more to improve students' educations than all the quick fixes championed by the right. Lessen discrimination and poverty, and students' test scores will improve, guaranteed.
Recently, I downloaded a map from the Arizona Department of Education website showing every public school in the greater Tucson area and the A-to-F grades they received from the state. The correlation between household income and school grades is stunning. The overwhelming majority of A schools are in areas where the average household income is above $68,000. The D schools are concentrated in areas where households make less than $24,000. The B and C schools dot the areas in between.
You could create a similar map in any area of the country and get the same results.
Poor children enter school with lead weights around their ankles. Rich kids have jet packs strapped to their backs. Even "great" teachers and schools can only do so much to lessen the effects of economic inequality.
K-12 schools should strive to do a better job educating our children, no question about it. But they can't create good-paying jobs that allow families to put a stable roof over their children's heads and food on their plates. They can't give expectant mothers good prenatal care or babies adequate health care. They can't provide quality early childhood education that gives children the boost they need to be ready for kindergarten. Those are society's responsibility. Conservatives are more than happy to shirk those responsibilities and shift blame to the schools.