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Education, By Any Means

By Anthony A. Williams and Kevin P. Chavous
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"We want freedom by any means necessary."

When Malcolm X uttered those words in June 1964, a chill traveled down the spine of America. The phrase signaled a change in the tone and tenor of the civil rights movement. It was understood that those fighting for equality and justice were willing to do anything to achieve those rights. Malcolm's words made clear that tedious, incremental steps toward freedom for African Americans were unacceptable and would not be tolerated. "By any means necessary" represented a crossroads in the civil rights movement.

Our nation faces a similar crossroads today regarding education reform. Ensuring that every American child receives equal access to high-quality education represents our last civil rights struggle. By any objective measure, the educational offerings we provide for our children, particularly children of color, do them a disservice.

Consider:

-- Barely half of the African American and Latino students who enter high school graduate.

-- The reading skills gap between white 17-year-olds and 17-year-olds of color is greater today than it was in 1990.

As a nation, our educational outputs for all children continue to slide in comparison with other industrialized nations. And in the District, as in many cities, we endure equally shocking deficits. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has testified that:

-- As of the 2006-07 school year, less than half of D.C. students were proficient in reading or math.

-- Some city schools reported a 70 percent achievement gap.

-- Only 9 percent of District students entering ninth grade graduated from college within nine years of beginning high school.

The reality of our children's deficits demands much more than we have given them. Platitudes, well-crafted speeches and the latest three-to-five-year reform plan aren't good enough. We must find ways to educate every child now, by any means necessary.

It was that spirit that led us, as elected officials of the District in 2003, to promote the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. The program, which provides scholarships for low-income children to attend private schools, is part of the three-sector initiative that annually provides $50 million in federal funding to the District for education purposes. That money has been equally divided among D.C. Public Schools, D.C. Public Charter Schools and the scholarship program.

Preliminary data suggest that the program has been an overwhelming success. An Education Department study released this month shows that students in the program have higher overall math and reading scores than when they entered the program. The study also points to high satisfaction with their children's schools among parents with children in the program. In short, those in this program have clearly benefited from being in a new school environment.

Despite these obvious signs of success, though, some in Congress want to end the program. Its funding is set to expire after the next school year ends, but some have even suggested curtailing it immediately so that these students can be placed in D.C. public schools as soon as possible. Already, no more students are being enrolled. These naysayers -- many of whom are fellow Democrats -- see vouchers as a tool to destroy the public education system. Their rhetoric and ire are largely fueled by those special-interest groups that are more dedicated to the adults working in the education system than to making certain every child is properly educated.

To us, that narrow perspective is wrongheaded and impractical, especially during these perilous economic times. Rather than talking about ending this scholarship program, federal lawmakers should allow more children to benefit from it.

President Obama said last month that "the relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, it's unsustainable for our democracy, it's unacceptable for our children -- and we can't afford to let it continue." We agree with the president. But unless we are willing to embrace all legitimate means to educate our children, we are abandoning them. How many more have to go without a proper education and give up their dreams before we say, "Enough"?

We should learn from the legacy of Malcolm X and the civil rights movement. In the long term, let us continue to reform, recalibrate and reenergize our education system. In the short term, however, we cannot afford to lose any more children to bad schooling. We must be willing to allow innovation and creativity to flourish so that all children benefit today. "By any means necessary" is a calling. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is a necessary means of educating children who otherwise would be lost; it must be maintained and allowed to flourish.

Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat, was mayor of the District from 1999 to 2007. Kevin P. Chavous, a former Democratic member of the D.C. Council, is the author of "Serving Our Children: Charter Schools and the Reform of American Public Education" and a distinguished fellow with the Center for Education Reform.

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