By Jesse Jackson Sr., Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr. is a leading civil rights activist and president and founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
(CNN) – It has been two years since the administration’s Race to the Top education competition was implemented, and scholars, advocates, practitioners and journalists are asking whether the program has been effective. From my perspective, this is the wrong question. We must instead determine whether a contest that provides support to some but not others is sufficient for addressing the structural inequities that make separate and unequal education a persistent fact of life in America today.
Race to the Top and other competitive grant programs are essentially designed to help those who can run, but our nation must be committed to lift from the bottom in order to provide equal, high-quality education for all children everywhere. Our present education policy does not meet this moral imperative.
Heralded as an innovative method for incentivizing states to adopt higher academic standards, “turn around” low performing schools, improve student and teacher evaluations, and recruit and train more effective teachers and principals, the Race to the Top contest is an inherently political response to the widely recognized need for education reform. It pretends to offer a solution for all when it provides only a band-aid for some.
Education policy based on the moral imperative of lifting from the bottom would address the systemic funding disparities that continue to plague schools in high-poverty neighborhoods. A legacy of the 1973 San Antonio Independent School District vs. Rodriguez Supreme Court decision, is that we continue to allow our public schools to be primarily financed through local property taxes. This is morally unacceptable, because property taxes are a function of the relative wealth of the surrounding neighborhood.
The result is education redlining and an uneven playing field with a different set of rules for poor kids attending schools in poor neighborhoods. Already starting from behind due to structural inequalities, poor kids attending disadvantaged schools are also penalized through the “turn around” policies of No Child Left Behind and the administration’s Blueprint for Reform that include mass firings of school personnel and disruptive school closures that are often executed without input from parents or the community.
And, new data from the Department of Education shows that poor minority students are disproportionately subjected to harsher disciplinary procedures that can have the effect of pushing them out of school before graduation. We must also respond to the crisis in out-of-school suspensions and the resulting community and school violence. We can’t keep closing schools and feeding our children into the prison-industrial complex, building jails, and expect our country to be respected by other nations.
We must argue the moral imperative and build a new framework for public education in America. Our education policy must guarantee access to early childhood education opportunities to offset the effects of household poverty on student achievement and remove barriers that deny poor kids access to high quality and highly effective teachers. A new study by the National Institute for Early Childhood Education shows that funding for public early childhood education programs is steadily declining even as enrollment has grown dramatically, almost doubling the percent of the population served in the past decade.And our current and proposed policies contain disincentives that keep good teachers away from students who need them most.
Many prominent advocates for education reform may believe that their efforts to link teacher evaluations to student test scores, close low-performing schools, conduct mass teacher and principal firings, and increase access to charter schools are in the best interest of poor children. But the problem is that many of these reforms are not based on best practices rooted in research evidence. Education policy that starts with the moral imperative would not allow poor and minority students to be used as guinea pigs for untested educational theories and practices.
For the sake of our country, we should all agree that there should be a common foundation beneath which no child falls. Yet, too often we’ve given up on the moral imperative for the politically expedient alternative when it comes to our nation’s education policies. To do what’s best for our nation and our children we must embrace a principle that's higher than politics. We should ensure that education policy starts with morality.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jesse Jackson Sr.