Making Education a Civil Right

By Jackson, John | The New Crisis, January/February 2003 | Go to article overview

Making Education a Civil Right


Jackson, John, The New Crisis


Guaranteeing the right to a highquality education for all citizens has been a historic struggle. Just as it has been in most struggles for civil rights, the NAACP has been a leading force on the education battlefield, from Charles Hamilton Houston's efforts in the 1930s and '40s as an NAACP attorney to desegregate state colleges and universities, to Thurgood Marshall's role as the lead attorney in the landmark 1954 Brown v Board of Education case. Nearly 50 years after the Brown decision, however, states and communities across the nation are still plagued by clear racial disparities in their educational systems.

Fueled by these disturbing inequities and an expanding education achievement gap, NAACP President and CEO Kweisi Mfume in 2000 led an effort to rekindle the NAACP's education advocacy agenda by establishing a National Education Department.

In the two years since the department's inception, the advocacy agenda has gained the attention and respect of national organizations, elected officials and community partners. In November 2001, the Education Department issued a national Call for Action in Education, a document distributed to governors across the nation requesting that they develop a FiveYear Educational Equity Plan to reduce the racial disparities in their states by 50 percent over a five-year period (2004-2009).

The Education Department's Call for Action challenged states to address the achievement gap by strategically addressing critical issues such as the overrepresentation of minorities in special education; their underrepresentation in gifted-and-talented courses; and disparities in testing, teacher quality, parental involvement, and suspensions and expulsions. To date, 45 states have responded.

In May 2001 and 2002, the Education Department organized the Biennial Daisy Bates Education Summit (named in honor of the former NAACP Arkansas State Conference President and advisor to the Little Rock Nine who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957) as a tool for building partnerships and setting a national agenda.

The 2002 summit attracted the attention of researchers, legislators, lawyers, entertainers and community advocates across the nation. As a result of the collaboration, a number of organizations agreed to unite as NAACP Partners in Education and develop an agenda to implement sound education policies and practices in several target states. This would be the first test in determining whether the success of the NAACP's national education advocacy agenda would easily filter to victories at the state level. However, as elected officials in the first target state, Florida, soon recognized, the success of the education agenda is even more effective at the state level.

Last May, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush twice failed to respond to the Florida State Conference's request to reduce the number of students in Florida's classrooms. In June, the NAACP Education Department joined with People For the American Way and the Florida Education Association to support a local organization, the Coalition to Reduce Class Size, in its efforts to place the issue on the November 2002 ballot. To get the initiative on the ballot, the Coalition to Reduce Class Size needed 489,000 signed petitions in the Florida Secretary of State's office by August.

On June 15, 2002, the NAACP National Education Department and the Florida State Conference of Branches launched a two-week Partners in Education Bus Tour in which they registered voters, gathered signatures, held public hearings and garnered support for the Florida amendment. …

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