Education Opinion

Is School Choice the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time?

By Diane Ravitch — June 02, 2009 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Dear Deborah,

You say that schools are now, for “the second time…at the center of the civil rights movement.” The schools in the 1950s were certainly at the center of the legal battle for civil rights, to be sure, and the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 was the key decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that paved the way for court rulings and legislative actions on many other fronts.

But the civil rights movement of the 1950s had much larger goals than school desegregation. To have won the Brown decision without also moving on many other fronts would have been a hollow victory indeed. Let us not forget the freedom riders who put their lives at risk to call attention to segregated bus lines across the South, or the civil rights workers who were murdered while registering black voters (a black mayor was elected last week in Philadelphia, Miss., a town near the spot where three civil rights activists were murdered in 1964). From this movement grew the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal anti-poverty program, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

So, yes, schools were at the center of the legal battle in the 1950s, but the goals of the movement went far beyond schooling.

In my previous blog, I said that education is not the civil rights issue of our time. Let me clarify. I believe in education as passionately as anyone on this planet. Every society should have great schools and great teachers. I believe that education is the greatest asset that any individual can have.

But I also believe that the most important challenge to our society today is poverty. So long as large segments of our society live in desperate poverty, their children enter school far behind. Education surely plays a role in ameliorating poverty, but schools alone are not the most effective anti-poverty program. If we want to reduce or eliminate poverty now rather than 20 years from now, then we must take action to help people find employment, to create jobs, to bolster adult literacy and adult education, and to provide access to health care to those who cannot afford it.

The schools today are not at the center of a new civil rights movement. Usually a movement is composed of the powerless bringing their grievances to the powerful. This contemporary “movement” (if it is one) is led by people who are themselves in the seats of power. Who are they confronting? Themselves? Their common grievance is the existence of an achievement gap among students of different racial groups, which all of us deplore. Is anyone defending or condoning the achievement gap? Do schools cause it? What do they propose to do to close it? Who is stopping them?

Here is one definition of the new civil rights movement. A few days ago, Brendan Miniter of the Wall Street Journal wrote that “School Choice is the New Civil Rights Struggle.” Miniter says that the new civil rights movement is a combination of black Democrats and political conservatives; their goal is school choice, that is, charter schools, tax credits, and vouchers, anything that will help poor and minority students escape from regular public schools.

It is interesting that this strong push for school choice arrives well after the precipitous decline of Catholic schools. There has been a vigorous debate in Congress about whether to preserve the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which gives vouchers to some 1,700 students. A recent evaluation of the program’s third year showed that students in the program made significant gains in reading, but not in mathematics (apparently the gains were limited only to girls, not boys, so if we follow the logic, only girls should get vouchers in the future). Initially, the Obama administration intended to close down the program, but its supporters reacted with outrage, and now the administration apparently plans to “grandfather” in the students already enrolled without adding new ones.

Father Andrew Greeley, the Catholic priest who is both a brilliant sociologist and a best-selling novelist, once told me that the first voucher would arrive on the day that the last Catholic school closed. He was not quite right, since the D.C. program, the Milwaukee program, and another one in Cleveland arrived before the last Catholic school closed. But the reality is that vouchers are almost a dead issue because so many Catholic schools have closed that there are not enough seats to solve the problems of any large city.

So the civil rights struggle of our time, it seems, comes down mainly to charter schools. If the states remove their caps, as President Obama wants them to do, and if the public money is there, we can anticipate that the charter sector will expand dramatically to meet the demand for escape from the regular public schools. The Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and other major private foundations are putting many millions into the growth of charter schools in urban districts.

What do you think, Debbie, is this good for kids? Good for society? What do you think about the multiplication of privately managed schools?


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.