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'Standing Up for the Children'

New York schools chief Joel I. Klein, center, and the Rev. Al Sharpton listen to D.C. schools chief Michelle A. Rhee.
New York schools chief Joel I. Klein, center, and the Rev. Al Sharpton listen to D.C. schools chief Michelle A. Rhee. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)

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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008

It was the kind of odd coupling that seemed more like the premise for a reality show than a news conference on education policy: New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

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They were in Washington yesterday as co-chairmen of a new national effort to push education issues from the periphery to the center of the 2008 presidential campaign. The Education Equity Project, Klein and Sharpton said, will challenge the presumptive presidential nominees, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), to treat the failure of schools to educate black and Latino children as the overriding civil rights issue of the 21st century.

Flanked by a group of prominent education officials and advocates, including D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, Baltimore City schools chief Andres Alonso and former Colorado governor and Los Angeles Schools superintendent Roy Romer, the two endorsed no candidate and offered few specific policy directives. But they said they intend to drive the debate through position papers, public forums planned at national conventions in Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul and behind-the-scenes advocacy with the campaigns.

Klein said that more than a half-century after Brown v. Board of Education, the promise of equal educational opportunity for minority students has yet to be realized. Test data showing black high school students lagging an average of four years behind their white peers in reading and math scores were "shocking in its dimensions," he said.

"To me this is not just an issue of school reform," Klein said. "It is a civil rights issue, the civil rights issue of our time."

Sharpton, a 2004 presidential candidate who has close political ties to Klein's boss, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said it was time for the traditional civil rights coalition to seek "a new paradigm," confronting old allies such as the teachers unions and insisting that they become more accountable for student performance.

"Who is standing up for the children?" Sharpton asked.

Education reform is traditionally a second-tier issue in presidential politics. Democrats tend to approach it with caution because of their close ties to teachers unions and other education interest groups that are a rich source of campaign contributions. Republicans have long regarded it as primarily a state responsibility. The notable exception was President Bush, who made his Texas gubernatorial initiative holding low-achieving schools accountable a key campaign theme and the basis for the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Obama and McCain have addressed K-12 education here and there. McCain is a strong supporter of No Child Left Behind, which sets math and reading achievement benchmarks, but says it needs to be strengthened. Obama has been more critical of the law and its emphasis on test scores. He has also proposed bonus pay for teachers who get extra training or whose students receive high scores on standardized tests.

But Klein, Sharpton and others at the National Press Club yesterday said that unless the next president spends money to steer high-quality teachers into low-performing schools, the achievement gap will persist.

Sharpton has clashed with Klein on some of his efforts to reform the massive New York system. Their joint venture began this spring in Memphis, where Klein addressed the annual meeting of Sharpton's National Action Network. There the two began sharing mutual concerns about graduation rates and equity in student funding. With the help of jazz and R&B musician and New York radio talk show host James Mtume, the equity campaign was launched.

Of his partnership with Klein, Sharpton said: "We are the odd couple, but we are the necessary couple."

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