Education: The Civil Rights Issue of the 21st Century

Education: The Civil Rights Issue of the 21st Century
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This week we celebrate "National School Choice Week," just as the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education arrives. For those in the education reform movement, both issues represent a battle for social justice.

Although we have outlawed explicit forms of discrimination like separate water fountains and bus seats, we continue to tolerate a current set of divisions like zip codes and school districts that maintain unfair standards the Supreme Court was determined to strike down. "Separate but equal" has been replaced by segregated schools based on economic plight and real estate values, leaving our most vulnerable young people in perennially low performing schools.

Every special interest group claims to be battling on the grounds of civil rights, but none can make as strong of a case as the parents whose children are required to attend a failing school. These parents and their children have been discriminated against. Opponents of school choice have essentially declared minorities and those below the poverty line as unqualified to make decisions regarding their child's education. It is just astounding when you think about it. And it is this reason alone that allows many to declare school choice as the biggest U.S. civil rights issue of the 21st century.

With all the talk regarding income inequality right now, it amazes me that few officials wagging their finger over the 99% refuse to connect the dots to school choice. The only lasting and true solution for income inequality is a pluralistic education system that drives results for all students regardless of where they live. In order for that to happen we must rally behind school choice and competition.

Imagine if you were only allowed to go to the dry cleaner on your street even though they shrunk your clothes and failed to get the job done. We wouldn't stand for it. This analogy may seem laughable to some, but understand that we are forcing parents to take their own children to the closest school regardless of quality or track record. It is a requirement and it flies in the face of Brown v. Board of Education.

Incidentally, the ROI on school choice is becoming increasingly clear. Data is already starting to pour in that Charter Schools are making an impact on higher education and personal income results.

According to new research, four researchers found students in charter high schools in Florida were more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college than students in traditional public schools. One would logically assume that these results aren't limited to Florida and would translate across the country. These researchers also concluded that charter high school students in Florida earned an estimated $2,347 more annually, when they were 23 to 25 years old than like district students.

One reason these statistics are in line with school choice is because parents are actively involved in education when options are presented. The students who attend charter schools do so at the choice of their parents. Parents who are given options become actively involved in their children's education and in every other part of their lives. This is precisely why we require parents to volunteer at CSUSA.

Over the past 15 years we have opened 58 charter schools for 50,000 students in seven different states. The great majority of these students being minorities and in economic need. We are taking on big challenges and fighting to open charter schools in the biggest areas of need-areas where decades of failure have left families hopeless and without a choice.

Ironically, when we take on the demand of the neediest communities, unions and district representatives arrive in full force with tragic and tired talking points. When we open a new school in a well-to-do neighborhood, the critics are scarce. I shudder to think why that is.

What critics fail to realize is that competition and choice is improving all schools. In the communities where we have opened new charter schools, we have seen a statistical rise in the results of all schools nearby. This is a result that is rarely discussed, inadvertent, but very encouraging.

Only a pessimist or a partisan could deny the steady and positive results of charter schools and education reform. But even the loudest voice in the reform movement would agree that we have a long way to go.

It will take a broad and unique coalition of reformers to carry the education reform movement over the next 60 years. As of today there are still several states that have failed to pass charter legislation and many more that have passed watered-down measures that missed the mark.

This past month and in preparation for President Obama's State of the Union we were told that income inequality is the greatest challenge of our time. If that is the case, I would argue that it starts with radical education reform.

In the 1950s, Linda Brown, her parents and 12 other families attempted to enroll in an all-white school that was closer to their home with the expectation that they would be rejected. Brown and her parents were of little influence but today they represent a movement in education because they recognized a social injustice that was affecting minorities and worked to do something about it. Brown-a third grader at the time-was one of the founders of school choice.

I think it is time we recognize, honor and carry on her work.

--Jonathan Hage is the founder and CEO of Charter Schools USA, one of the largest and fastest growing charter management companies in the country.


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