Education Is a Civil Rights Issue. Sorry, Not Sorry.

Jan 11, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Garris Stroud

I’m just going to go ahead and say it: School reform is a civil rights issue, and it’s one that I can’t be moderate about. Sorry, not sorry. I’m referring here to a group of people that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. liked to talk about: the “moderates.” This isn’t the “I Have a Dream” Dr. King that we hear every January, though. I’m talking about the deep, controversial Dr. King, who called out people (including myself) for being complacent with the inequalities that exist around us. Here’s what he says about those sorts of people:
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the White moderate[...] who constantly says 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action.' [...] Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
In the passage, Dr. King talked about his frustration with White folks who claimed to support integration, but wouldn’t join his movement because it seemed too controversial or too inconvenient. These “moderates” liked the idea of equality. It felt good to support. They were supposed to support it. But they weren’t willing to, you know, actually do something about it. [pullquote]If the task of social welfare were left to the moderates alone, do you really think we would still be where we are today?[/pullquote] I hate to say it, but the moderates that Dr. King described still exist today. There are lots of people who will acknowledge that inequalities still exist all around us, but they’re opposed to any sort of “direct action” that might actually put a stop to those same injustices. It happens in all sorts of areas, like housing, healthcare and even education. As an educator and advocate for social justice, I have a duty to call out those who stand in the way of our students’ potential. School reform is a civil rights issue, and opposing those of us who genuinely seek to build better schools simply makes it harder for our underserved students to get the opportunities they need.

Imperfect Solutions, Not Perfect Imaginations

We see this with a lot of school-reform critics, who specialize in finding flaws with ideas like Common Core and charter schools that could actually be beneficial for students who aren’t learning as effectively as they could be. Their arguments essentially boil down to this: Sure, our schools aren’t necessarily great, but if all these changes you want aren’t going to fix everything, we would be better off just leaving things alone. So how are things ever going to change, then? For what it’s worth, I find that those critics often use really context-free, anecdotal examples to support that basis. In some cases, some are just waging a flat-out misinformation campaign to halt school-reform efforts. That sort of negativity reveals this persistent idea that we can keep doing what we've been doing and somehow our schools will get better on their own ( that's literally insane). The truth is that education reform is a real and meaningful opportunity to help our students be successful, and [pullquote position="right"]we can't let imperfect efforts get in the way of meaningful outcomes.[/pullquote] If you’re just opposing school reform on principle alone, you’re hindering the progress that our underserved students need. I won’t stand for that.

We Can't Keep Waiting

Let’s be clear: I don’t think that we should simply go along with every new idea or policy just because it’s supposed to be “good” for students—supporting school-reform efforts doesn’t mean we have to suddenly stop thinking critically. I’m just saying that we can’t keep waiting for the perfect opportunity to start analyzing the areas where we have room to improve. The obstacles are never going to just disappear—politics will always be messy and money will always be hard to come by. The battle to make schools better is always going to be an uphill climb, and I say that's all the more reason to get to work. There are so many issues that our kids face today, from a lack of access to good schools, to hostile learning environments, to inexperienced teachers and plenty of other problems. We can’t fall into the trap of viewing education reform as just another item on the legislative to-do list. School reform is a civil rights issue, and it’s not one that we can afford to sit out.

Garris Stroud

Garris Stroud is an award-winning educator and writer from Greenville, Kentucky whose advocacy and scholarship have been recognized by USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, Education Post, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and The Lexington Herald-Leader. He served as a Hope Street Group Kentucky State Teacher Fellow from 2017-2019 and became chair of the organization’s editorial board in 2018. Stroud received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Murray State University and is currently a doctoral student in educational leadership at the University of the Cumberlands, located in the heart of Kentucky’s Appalachian region. Read more about his work on the Kentucky School Talk and Rural Ed Voices blogs.

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