By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Politics often produces strange bedfellows. But yesterday, on the 55th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that integrated the nation's schools, when former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich shared the stage at a boisterous rally in front of the White House with the Rev. Al Sharpton, even Gingrich called the two the "Original Odd Couple."
What unites the conservative Gingrich and the liberal Sharpton, Gingrich said, is the urgent mission to close the persistent achievement gap that divides students along racial and socioeconomic lines and to make educational equality the civil rights issue of the 21st century.
"I know it's possible to educate every child from every background," Gingrich said to loud applause from the largely African American crowd that had come to Washington in 70 buses from 22 cities. "We're not telling you what the answer is. But we're telling you to keep changing until you find a solution."
Gingrich and Sharpton said that despite their differences, coming together, as they did in a recent meeting with President Obama, is the first step in calling more attention to the gap and creating a nationwide grass-roots movement to close it.
Both Gingrich and Sharpton are part of the Education Equality Project, which has attracted supporters of every political stripe from across the country. They are aiming to change bleak statistics. By fourth grade, the group's research shows, black and Latino students are, on average, three years behind their white and Asian counterparts. Barely half of all black and Latino students graduate from high school, while nearly 80 percent of white students do. And gaps in reading, math and science are wider today between racial groups than they were in 1990, despite nearly seven years of testing and standards reform under the No Child Left Behind law.
But the education system has its entrenched interest groups. The differing philosophies were apparent in the crowd. Some held signs for vouchers; others were anti-voucher. Some were pro-charter school. Or pro-teacher merit pay. Others vehemently opposed both.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan admonished the crowd that it is time to stop supporting school systems that work for adults and start creating schools that work for all children. "Our babies have one chance to get an education," he said.
Backstage, Sharpton said the equity movement is messy and full of conflict, "but we've got an awful lot of energy out there.
"I may not agree with your way, you may not agree with my way, but we can all agree that we're in a crisis. Community leaders like myself haven't dealt with it, and I intend to make up for lost time."
Sharpton then took the stage, got the crowd chanting "Close the Gap Now!" and said the answer was not just equal funding for schools so children have excellent educations regardless of their Zip code, but for parents to turn off the TV, for fathers to stop walking away from their children and for all to have high expectations for their children.
"What's a high expectation?" Hassan Floyd, 7, asked his mother, Fathma Floyd-Brent, a teacher who works in a Baltimore high school with no air conditioning or computers and has one of the lowest graduation rates in the city.
"It's when I tell you I don't expect no 70s, 80s or 90s," she said. "But 100s."
The boy, who is already talking about going to college and one day being president, nodded knowingly.