Quality Education as a Civil Right, May 2005

A two-day conference of educators, students and community leaders is calling for a constitutional amendment that guarantees a quality public school education for every child in the United States.

More than 100 community leaders and educators from across the country met to discuss the historical, legal, moral and economic aspects of a proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee every child a quality education. Among the presenters were actor Danny Glover of the Algebra Project, Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, Edwina Branch-Smith and Richard Gray of NYU, Goodwin Liu of UC Berkeley, Jeannie Oakes of UCLA, Edmund Gordon, Teachers College-Columbia University, Kitty Kelly Epstein of the Vanguard Public Foundation and historian Vincent Harding of Iliff School of Theology's Veterans of Hope Project.

Participants agreed to begin pushing for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing quality public school education as a civil right. "The reason the country has never been able to have such a discussion is because it has never been able to look at all the children in the country, as children of the country," Moses told the gathering. "Are we mature enough to have this conversation now?"

The scale of the education problem is enormous, conferees agreed. According to the Urban Institute, 50% African Americans 9th graders, 49% of Native Americans, and 47% of Latinos, not finishing high school. In some poor urban and rural areas, high school dropout rates approach 80%. Black children are three times as likely to be labeled mentally retarded as whites, twice as likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed, and more often isolated in separate classrooms. Poor students of color have less access to credentialed and experienced teachers, high quality curriculum, materials, and tools, after-school and summer programs, and advanced level courses.

Participants responded to a call for action that would guarantee every child in America a quality public school education. Addressing these issues requires more than "school reform" around the edges, they agreed. Quality public school education for all means, "raising the floor for all students, not just getting students to meet the minimal requirements of state standards," said civil rights veteran David Dennis. "This will require a fundamental change in our public education system in addition to the issues of equity and adequacy of resources."

The voices of civil rights era veterans united with those of high school students around a vision of a new movement of student activists determined to have access to a quality public school education. Young Peoples' Project math literacy worker Albert Sykes asked the mostly adult audience, "Why did the State of Mississippi give a new business millions of dollars in tax breaks to move to our county, but they can't give our teachers a raise for years?" Baltimore Algebra Project student Charnell Covert shared her group's plans for a student strike to protest the failure of the State of Maryland to pay court ordered funds to local schools. The students' stories added a sense of urgency to the discussion.

Groups worked to explore the legal, legislative, research, policy, youth and community engagement dimensions of working towards universal quality education. An interim coordinating committee is moving forward to broaden the national discussion through a series of grassroots conversations in communities around the nation. These conversations are intended to increase understanding of the current crisis in public education and to begin to link with and support an expanding network of local initiatives addressing this crisis. 


The meeting was jointly hosted by Vinetta Jones, Dean of the School of Education at Howard University, along with her colleagues James A. Donaldson, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and Kurt L. Schmoke, Dean of the School of Law. H. Patrick Swygert, President of Howard University, welcomed participants.