School Talk

Of Course Education is a Civil Right

It is impossible to separate the conversation about equity in education from the conversation about civil rights. Former President George W. Bush, President Obama, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and current Secretary John King have all stood firm on the belief that when we talk about educating all of America’s children, we are talking about the issue of civil rights.

Kevin R. Kosar has a piece up today at The Fordham Insitute’s Flypaper in which he accuses those of us who call the education law passed under Lyndon Johnson a “civil rights” law of peddling “bogus history” and playing “dirty pool.”

He claims that the original 1965 ESEA was anti-poverty (no argument here) but seems to assert that it can’t also be a civil rights law. Any law that is fundamentally about educating disadvantaged students, especially students of color and students with disabilities, is by definition, a civil rights law, at least to those who choose not to have an oddly narrow definition of civil rights.

While Kosar includes excerpts of LBJ’s remarks on the signing of ESEA in 1965, he conveniently leaves out one very important line, a line that should resonate with all of us today as much, if not more, than it did fifty years ago.


“It represents a major new commitment of the federal government to quality and equality in the schooling that we offer our young people.”


It is impossible to read President Johnson’s words and not believe that the spirit of the law, at least in part, was to ensure that all children have equal access to a quality public education.

In 2002, George W. Bush, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, called education “the great civil rights issue of our time” and in the wake of the bipartisan support and signing of the No Child Left Behind Act, he said this:

“Now our challenge is to make sure that every child has a fair chance to succeed in life.”

“We must have high expectations for children who are more difficult to teach or who have fallen behind,” Bush said. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would accept no less than an equal concern for every child in America, and neither will my administration.”

Fast forward to 2016.  We are still failing far too many children, and our failings continue to disproportionately impact children of color and children from low income families. Secretary King knows that. He saw it first as a child growing up in Brooklyn, who lost both of his parents by the age of 13 and credits teachers with saving his life. He has seen it as a school founder and leader in Boston, as Education Commissioner in New York, and now as the Secretary of Education of the United States.

He’s not backing down and I applaud him for that. Having worked in wealthy schools and poor schools, it is impossible to ignore how patently unfair the system is for our poor students and our students of color, who as we all know, are often one and the same.

Secretary King can’t unsee what he has seen in America’s classrooms. Neither can I. And neither can anyone who has criss-crossed the nation and seen the glaring disparity at every level that exists in our public schools based not only on zip code, but also on the neighborhood within the same zip code.

The plain fact of the matter is that, with few exceptions, we spend a lot more money on rich kids than we do on poor kids and kids of color. And that is wrong.

Lyndon Johnson said unequivocally that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act represented a federal commitment to “quality and equality.” Five decades have passed and we still aren’t there. President Obama and Secretary King are committed to getting there.

And they are right to be.

This isn’t dirty pool. It isn’t bogus history.

It’s the uncomfortable truth.


What do you think?

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