Education reform was “job one” for the NAACP in the last century. Sadly, despite progress in other areas, it still is.
Question: On what race-related issues have we made the most progress since the 1960s?
Ben Jealous: Well, Brown v. Board of Education has worked everywhere except for the school. Except for the venue in which it was intended to work. You hop on a train and it's a desegregated train, you get on a plane it's a desegregated plane, you hop into a taxi and anybody can hop into the taxi, and the same thing with the bus, and the same thing with most work places. Although there are many, I mean, you know, 15% of advertising firms on Madison Avenue have no black -- major big ones, hundreds of people, have no black person working for them. Right? In a city that's like 20-someting percent black. So, we have made progress in every sector. Where we've made -- and the military is where probably were things have succeeded most and where the success seems most resistant to being rolled back on.
Schools, unfortunately is where we've seen the biggest regression, and that, unfortunately -- when the NAACP started its first century -- was job one and now as we start our second is job one too.
Question: What are the major challenges in 21st century minority education?
Ben Jealous: You know, it's a funny thing, in this country we all believe that we have a right to go to school. We have a right to a good education. And we don't. The U.S. Constitution contains no right for a child to go to school, let alone for a child to go to a good school. And yet, we know as a people that if they don't go to a good school, they're less likely to be able to realize all that this country has to offer.
The focus for the 21st century has to be ensuring that every child born in this country, can grow up and go to a good school, get a good education, and be set up for success. Across this country that's just not the reality. We've seen schools rapidly desegregate over the last 20 years. That's why what Secretary Duncan is doing right now to rebuild the civil rights enforcement powers of the Department of Education are so important.
Now, a Latino child in California is more likely to go to a more deeply segregated school than a black child in Mississippi. And so problems that we think of in our mind as being in one part of the country or another tend to be all across the country. That child in Los Angeles may go to a classroom with 50 kids in it. And they live in a state that spends an average of $5,800 per child to go to school, and $248,000 to incarcerate a child for one year in the state prison. You can see where the connection is. That literally it costs the same as an entire classroom of children to send one kid to prison in California.
The focus has to be on recognizing the instruction gap in this country. People talk about an achievement gap, and they talk about, for instance, only 31% of black males graduate from high school in Baltimore. Only 38% of white males graduate from high school in Baltimore. So, that really is a Baltimore problem, right? More than it's a black problem or a white problem. It's a black and white problem -- it's a Baltimore problem.
But 40% of that achievement gap would be closed if quality teachers across society were distributed on an even basis. We're still fighting, in other words, for the same things we were fighting for a long time ago. We're fighting for good teachers, we fighting for kids to have new books, we fighting for kids to be in decent classrooms, we're fighting for kids to be treated fairly. Right now, the way we use school discipline in this society is out of control. Here in New York City, we had a situation a few weeks ago where a young Latino girl who wrote on her desk with an erasable marker was taken out of the classroom in handcuffs and taken downtown and booked. That's just not what any parent would want to see any child subjected to.
We also, besides resources and teachers in dealing with school discipline, we really have to, as a country, recognize that school is where people get their identity not just as a scholar, or a future business person, but as a citizen. And we need to make sure that our schools set them up for success as citizens. And that's why desegregation is so important, that people grow up in an environment that reflects the diversity of the country. That's why making sure that civics are taught in school is so important. We need to see our schools as what they are, which is a place to train the next generation to lead and not places simply to lead them to prison or some other dark path. And that's, unfortunately what so many of our schools are. I mean, when you really spend time in so many of our public schools and poor neighborhoods, black or white across this country, you can see how a child could give up hope by the time that they're 12.
Question: Should Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone be imitated nationwide, as Obama has suggested?
Ben Jealous: Harlem Children's Center is incredible. I've known Geoff for 20 years. The first time I've met him was as a kid in college. The question is how easily could it be replicated. It's something that thrives in one of the wealthiest cities on the planet. And the question is, well, could you transport that to Mississippi? Now, I would agree that in a sort of perfect world, we could. But in this country right now where resources for schools are based on local property taxes, it becomes nearly impossible. So, I would say, yes, it should be replicated wherever it possibly could be, but I have real doubts about it. So, it's a yes, but I have real doubts that the country could literally afford to do that across the country. Or more importantly, if we could afford to do it, if we would do everything we would need to, to be able to afford it. When we stop fighting wars overseas and doing the sorts of things that eat up all those trillions of dollars we could be spending to treat our kids as well as Geoff treats the kids up in Harlem.
Recorded March 10th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen