Education is indeed the new black. It’s the thing to talk about (except if you’re running for President. Then, you NEVER bring it up). All the cool kids are doing it. Why aren’t you? You can throw around phrases like educational disparities, unequal funding, right to learn, and teacher quality. It’s really fun. I promise you. I get to do it all day.
Because of the close knit relationship between education and politics, educational discourse has becoming increasingly dramatic. We used to research intellectual development and gender identity. Now, we research the achievement gap and the war on boys. Everything in education is ‘the most pressing concern’, yielding a narrative entitled: Education is the Civil Rights Issue of the 21st Century.
Education is indeed a civil right but is not an issue in and of itself. The absence of this right is the issue. And it is not a new issue in the 21st century. It was not new in the 20th century. Or the 19th century. Historically, education has been THE civil right denied to a marginalized, oppressed, ignored, blamed group. No, it is not the issue that is new; it is only the ostracized party that changes.
Any 5th grader can identify at least two groups historically denied the right to education: women and slaves. An 8th grader would likely add immigrants to that list. In 1896, we decided separate but equal was a good way to ensure inequality in opportunities to learn between races. In 1954 we changed our minds. In 1965, the federal government added poor families to the list of educationally underserved groups. In 2004, they added students with disabilities. In 2008, President Obama added not-native English speakers to the list. In 2012, President Obama was more specific in his language, adding children of immigrants to the list.
Yes, education as a problem to be solved is socially, politically, and economically evident throughout our history. Its emergence on the scene as a 21st century concern is frustrating and laughable to those of us entrenched in the ‘issue’ on a daily basis, be it as parents of school-aged children, teachers or administrators in almost any public school, or as an academic designing, implementing, and evaluating theoretically-based interventions to bandage this multi-systemic problem.
In fact, such histrionics in education are political propaganda to mask the reality of the problems that support and sustain unequal and inequitable learning opportunities. If you really want to have a discussion about education as a civil right, let’s talk about how low-income, ethnic minority, non-native English speaking, gifted and talented, physically disabled, learning disabled, developmentally delayed, rural, urban, and students from non-traditional families do not even have access to safe school buildings, competent and qualified teachers, textbooks, advanced courses, extracurricular activities, or even healthy school lunches. If they don’t have access to these things, they certainly don’t have the opportunity to take advantage of them. If we want to talk about rights, where is the war on discriminatory, biased, and privileged social systems whose mere presence undermines our children’s right to learn? Where is the analysis of educational policies whose esoteric verbiage masks the fact that this policy is designed to maintain segregated schools? Where is our outrage at the causes of income, race, and gender-based achievement gaps? There is none. We are too focused on problematizing education and the people working to make it better.
Labeling education a new civil right issue is an attempt to juxtapose the fight for ‘equal education’ with the battles fought by women, people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ communities for the right to vote; the right to send their children to safe schools; the right to fair wages and safe housing; the right to love and family; the right to be granted access to the privileges inherent to those with fair skin, family money, Christian values, heterosexual behaviors, and full use of their body.
This is an unfair comparison. Sectors of our society have made public the problems they have with not being able to vote without proper identification; with school gun violence and bullying; with unequal pay for women, with the banning of gay marriage. But we have not voiced our opposition to the largest civic system in our society. We have not become advocates for our children. We have not campaigned our politicians or conducted a march on Washington or enacted our hard-earned right to vote in local school board elections. We’ve not enlisted churches, community organizations, or even educational institutions to help us fight against educational injustices. No, we’ve done nothing but assign labels. We’ve labeled students at-risk, underprivileged, hard-to-reach. We’ve labeled teachers not qualified, incompetent. We’ve labeled schools failing and underperforming. We’ve framed education through a deficit lens as a problem to be solved, not an opportunity to be provided.
Until we move from problem-posing toward skepticism, perspective taking, and systemic thinking, our education system will indeed remain an issue, and never a civil right.