You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Study
Threats to our civil liberties are alive and well.
On Tuesday, the Republican House Oversight Committee disbanded its subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties, which had been focused on issues like voting rights and criminal justice reform.
Committee Chair James Comer argued that it was no big deal because the full committee could have hearings on “basically anything we want.”
It’s pretty obvious that Republicans don’t want to talk about claims of voter suppression and police brutality and extrajudicial killings.
Honestly, in the wake of Tyre Nichols murder, it can be difficult for some of us to want to talk about anything but civil rights like equal treatment under the law, due process and the right to not get beat to death by police. But the fact is, all of the rights we enjoy today have been paid for in blood. And education is no different.
On Sept. 15, 1963, at 10:19 a.m., eleven days after a federal order required Alabama to integrate its school system, a bomb exploded in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and killed four young Black girls and injured as many as 20 others. It was the third church bombing to rock the city since the federal mandate came down.
We’ve made progress since then — state and local governments no longer forcibly segregate schools — but many Black children today, in 2023, are still getting an unequal education. They’re still being denied their educational civil rights.
What Are Civil Rights?
It’s helpful to think of civil rights in the context of civil liberties.
Civil liberties make up the government’s “thou shall not” list:
- “Make no law” restricting religion, speech, or the press
- “Not infringe” on a citizen’s right to bear arms
- No soldiers can commandeer your house for a good night’s sleep
- No search and seizure without a warrant
- No cruel and unusual punishment
Civil rights, on the other hand, tell the government what it must do:
- Provide due process under the law
- Abolish slavery and involuntary servitude (unless you’re deemed a criminal)
- Allow all adults, regardless of race or gender to vote (unless your a felon)
- Public schools, government agencies, employers, private institutions that received federal funds, and others were no longer allowed to discriminate based on race, religion, gender, nationality, etc.
Civil rights matter because they increase justice and fairness in cases where the Constitution and civil liberties don’t go far enough. For example, providing voting rights to women and men of all races, not just white men.
A Brief History of Educational Civil Rights
In the United States, the struggle for educational civil rights has been a long and arduous one. The fight for equality in education dates back to the days of slavery, when African Americans were denied the right to an education.
Hugh Auld, a slaveholder over Frederick Douglass, scolded his wife after learning that she had been teaching Douglass letters, essentially saying that if she taught him how to read, “there would be no keeping him” and it would make him “forever unfit to be a slave.”
After the abolition of slavery, segregation in schools persisted, with Black students attending separate and unequal schools. This inequality was challenged in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which declared segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional.
Despite the ruling, many schools remained segregated, and Black students continued to receive a substandard education. It was not until the civil rights movement of the 1960s that the fight for education as a civil right gained significant traction.
Through protests, demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience, activists and leaders of the movement challenged segregation and inequality in education. Their efforts led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in education and other areas of life, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which provided federal funding to improve education for disadvantaged students.
These were significant strides — and they came at a high cost — but the struggle continues today.
Education Civil Rights Today
Today, the fight continues as access to quality education remains elusive for many students, particularly those from marginalized communities. The achievement gap between white and Black students remains a persistent problem, as does the underfunding of schools in low-income areas.
On average, roughly two-thirds of students cannot read at a proficient level, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). For Black 4th graders, only 16% are proficient in reading. In 2020, 54% of Black high school graduates enrolled in a two- or four-year college, compared with 67% of white graduates. Only one percent of college graduates are Black, compared with 59.1% of college graduates who are white.
This isn’t simply a matter of unequal outcomes. The fact is that Black students are not receiving the same opportunities for quality of education as their white peers. Some examples include:
- Classrooms made up of mostly Black students are less likely to get rigorous work.
- Predominantly Black schools get billions fewer dollars than predominantly white schools.
- Schools with the greatest needs (typically high-poverty and majority Black schools) tend to have less experienced and less effective teachers. They also have grossly limited access to advanced courses, high-quality instructional materials and adequate facilities.
- 1 in 4 high schools with high populations of Black, Latinx, American Indian, and Pacific Islander students do not offer Algebra I.
- Poverty and school zoning policies have recreated segregated schools.
- Black students are disciplined at higher rates, and more severely than their white peers.
- Elementary schools with large populations of Black students tend to have fewer experienced and effective teachers. Teachers have lower expectations for Black students.
- Black students are less likely to be identified as gifted.
- Black students are unlikely to be taught by a teacher who looks like them.
I’m mostly focusing on Black students in this piece, but students with disabilities, or from other racial or gender minority groups, have also fought and continue to fight for a more equitable education.
Education Civil Rights Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to this cause, has developed a series of resources for educators, parents and others to learn more about education civil rights issues and protect marginalized students. If you or someone you know has had your civil rights violated, the Alliance can help bring legal action against education organizations, school districts or the state, local and federal agencies who failed to meet their responsibilities.
Education is a critical tool for individuals to reach their full potential and for communities to thrive. It is through education that individuals gain the skills and knowledge needed to participate in the workforce and contribute to their communities. Education also plays a key role in breaking the cycle of poverty and inequality, as access to quality education is linked to increased economic mobility and higher lifetime earnings.
Zooming out, education is also essential for the development and prosperity of a democratic society. It is a civil right, and one that we must continue to fight for.
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