Education: America’s New Civil Right

Jim Broussard
Jim Broussard

Guest Commentary

Education can and should be America’s newest civil rights issue.   Today, too many schools are failing too many children. The system is broken, and access to a quality education is largely the province of the wealthy, of those who can afford to opt out of failing government schools in favor of better options.

The poor, immigrants, inner-city children are the ones hurt most by these harsh realities. They are the ones most in need of quality schools but are stuck in under-performing schools where test scores continue to decline and where outdated work rules and union practices make reform nearly impossible.

There are better ways.  Vouchers that allow children to attend private schools, the expansion of charter schools, distance learning, and specialty school programs are all ideas whose time has come. It is important to understand that it is not the schools that must change but the educational system itself.

It’s a struggle on the order of what America experienced in the 1960s, when the fight over establishing equality under law for all Americans became the watchword of the era.  It’s time for this fight again, only this time with the goal of equal access to quality education at the center of the debate.

The Chester Community Charter School is a good example of what can happen when people face the problem and take action to overcome it. It started in 1998 with only 97 students. Today, there are more than 3,200 spread across nine state-of-the-art buildings where the lives of thousands of students are being made better while restoring life to the city of Chester, one of the Commonwealth’s poorest communities.

Despite the fact that it draws from the same student pool as the rest of the Chester-Upland School District, CCCS has produced consistently superior academic outcomes and placements for its students.  This contrasts dramatically with the Chester-Upland School District, which is perennially ranked among the worst school districts in the Commonwealth.

It works because CCCS is different. As a charter school it is free from the kinds of onerous, outdated work rules and regulations that have paralyzed the cause of reform in existing public schools. It brings a different approach to education, one that is paying benefits to all the students who attend. As others have observed, the one-size approach to education no longer fits all. Nor does it have to.

And charter schools are just one option. Directing per-student dollars to families rather than schools so that parents can use vouchers to help pay tuition at private or parochial schools is another. The educational establishment had shown far too often that it cannot reform itself, so the only alternative is for parents, communities, and those who care about the future of our children here in the Commonwealth and across the nation to demand that things be allowed to change.

This means pressuring policy makers to open the system to increased reforms. Pennsylvania and the nation need more charter schools like CCCS and other educational options that will create the educated workforce of young Americans that are needed to be competitive in the global economy, not of the future, but that is here now.  It’s important to understand that a charter school is a public school, but the decision to form one comes from parents, teachers and the local community, and they have fewer stagnating rules to follow.

These reforms will not happen by themselves. It will take a concerted effort to move the debate from fixing the unfixable, at tremendous cost to the taxpayers, to offering new options for parents who want their children to enjoy greater success than they did. This used to be the American dream; now it’s increasingly a pipe dream, as jobs move offshore in search of educated, quality workers and sensible work rules that allow for greater economic success.

The time to turn the tide is now. Where charter schools are in operation the competition to enroll students in them is so intense that school districts often have to resort to lotteries to determine who goes. There should be enough space for everyone who wants to attend, which means we need to expand the number of placements available which, in reality means expanding the opportunities available for our children.

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Dr. Jim Broussard writes for Citizens Against Higher Taxes, teaches American history and historiography at Lebanon Valley College.