Part Three—Speaking Truth to Power

Parts One and Two of this blog theme—“Speaking Truth to Power”—spotlight respected voices in our profession speaking out about what Jonathan Kozol called “savage inequalities” in our country.

Today there is a rising tide of voices, and many ways to join with others who care deeply, insisting that education in America reach the point of providing true equal educational opportunity for every child and family. This is our professional responsibility as educators, as critical as the Hippocratic Oath in medicine.

The keyword here, for me, is equity—or in legal terminology, “the application of the dictates of conscience or the principles of natural justice in the settlement of controversies” (Webster).

To create educational equity will require a disproportionate provision of necessary resources where inequity exists. Even reaching the point of providing equal resources to all schools (which clearly does not exist today) will only continue to perpetuate the gap in achievement and a broken promise of college and career readiness so strongly touted by new state and federal standards. That is, schools dealing with inadequate resources now need more-than-equal resources, at least for awhile, to make up for the damage caused by decades of not having enough.

How this task is to be undertaken may well be a matter of political debate and discussion. But if the task of providing equity in educational opportunity in all our schools is not enjoined by people of all political persuasions, there is little doubt that our social and economic problems will increase, our global competitiveness will be compromised, and the future of our democracy will become significantly at risk.

The idea of equity has long been declared to be at odds with prevailing American ideals of capitalism, rugged individualism, and competition. Equity has been confused with equality, supposedly guaranteed under the Bill of Rights, as in “all men are created equal.” Changes in education policy over the course of my lifetime have, by my observation, provided a kind of “acceptable equity” for children attending public schools from the upper middle and middle class. Upper class children are primarily taught in private schools and lower middle and lower class children, now in growing numbers, live in poverty and are taught in inadequate school facilities, by teachers earning far less than those in higher income schools, with high turnover rates, and large class sizes and in neighborhoods with myriad social and economic problems.

What is striking is that current levels of poverty and inequity are as high (if not higher) than they were in the early 1960’s. One of my early mentors, Whitney M. Young, Jr., who led the National Urban League back then, wrote a book, To Be Equal (now out of print but available from used-book sellers), in which he called for a “domestic Marshall Plan” similar to the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II. Coming across this book recently, I was taken by how similar his “general checklist for citizens” in 1964 sounds to some of the critiques being offered by educational and social critics today: Young urged us to:

  • “Face the fact that your community does discriminate.
  • Make right, justice and democratic process your objectives. Do not set goals merely to be better than Mississippi, Georgia and South Africa.
  • Do not use the tragic results of inequality to justify continuing it.
  • Finally, and most importantly, work for the adoption of a domestic special effort program in all areas of our society, such as has been described in this book, so that along with equal opportunity will go the opportunity to be equal.”

All the cliches about the future being our children, of course, are true, but without increased equity in education that future will be bright only for those privileged to be educated in our best schools. I remain hopeful that change is possible. Our young people are increasingly aware and outspoken about injustice. We can join them and others to stand up for what we know to be right and fair. Wherever we are, we can speak out for increased equity for all children.

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