By Wade Henderson (President and CEO, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights)
For the first time in our nation’s history, the majority of students in public schools are students of color. But in most places, communities of color still have little meaningful say in how their states manage and resource education. As a result, too many students in this new majority are in overcrowded classes and inadequate facilities where teachers are overworked, underpaid and stuck with a curriculum that lacks rigor and relevance.
All students deserve the opportunity to learn and work hard in a healthy environment with excellent teachers, but even 62 years after Brown v. Board of Education, our nation is reeling from the unfulfilled promise of an equal education for all. Educational equity is vital to our nation; two-thirds of all future jobs will require some level of higher education, and research suggests that within the next 10 years, our economy will face a deficit of 11 million skilled workers. Continuing policies that fail to prepare all students for college and careers is an immoral and self-defeating choice that stunts our nation’s economic potential — and mocks our democratic ideals.
But now there’s an opportunity for states, districts and schools to make a better choice. The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, the federal education law Congress passed late last year, requires that parents and communities be meaningfully engaged in determining how states equitably educate their children.
Under ESSA, every single state and school district is confronted with a question of enormous consequence: Will they work with new majority communities to develop plans and policies that ensure excellent schools for all children? Or will they continue to make their decisions in a bubble, avoid accountability and do a disservice to students in the process?
Progress is not guaranteed. For this new law to improve education for every student, states need to put communities in the driver’s seat and focus on the interests of marginalized students. We have always had strong, clear and diverse voices demanding that our education system serve the interests of their children — but decision-makers rarely listen.
Recent research shows that Black and Latino parents understand what the problems exist in their children’s schools — and they have clear ideas about what should change. They know that the schools their children attend don’t get as much funding as schools White children attend; they know their children aren’t getting as good an education as White children; and they know that race is at least one of the reasons why. But they also believe good teaching and high expectations are critical and they want both for their children.
This is all information that states should be taking into account when determining their policies and programs under the new law. And to do that, states, districts, and schools have to engage new majority parents and communities. They have to build strong accountability systems that identify and target meaningful support and improvement in any school where all students — or any group of students — are not learning. They have to provide robust data and reporting about how well schools are educating students and they have to provide them in formats and languages that parents can understand. And, as communities of color demand, they have to distribute resources — high-quality teachers, challenging coursework, up-to-date facilities and classroom materials — more equitably.
Last year during the debate over the new law, states argued that they were in the best position to make decisions that would benefit all students. Now is the time to prove it.
Every single child in this great country deserves a world-class education. But that can’t happen if states and districts ignore the priorities of the families they serve. Experience shows that this can be done. All we need is the will to sit down, open our minds and listen to what all families are saying.
Wade Henderson is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 diverse civil rights organizations. Follow The Leadership Conference on Twitter @civilrightsorg and learn more about their work at www.civilrights.org.