The Rev. Al Sharpton speaks during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington on June 11, 2008, to announce the Strong American Schools campaign. The public awareness effort aims to put education atop the nation’s priority list, calling for detailed and vigorous discussion of the issue by the 2008 presidential candidates. (AP photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
WASHINGTON — If Johnny can’t read and Sally can’t add, it’s often because of the color of their skin and their ZIP code, educators and activists said last week.
The heads of the New York City and Washington, D.C., school systems joined with civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton and others last Wednesday to press for a shake-up of public schools from coast to coast to narrow the achievement gap between white students and black and Hispanic students. The group called the gap the nation’s most pressing civil rights issue.
By the time they near high school graduation, black and Hispanic teenagers on average have math and reading skills no higher than those of white middle-school students four years younger.
Nationally, 55 percent of black males graduate high school on time, compared to about 78 percent for whites, according to recent data released by Education Week with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“All the numbers, no matter how you look at it, are shocking,” said Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City school system, the nation’s largest.
Klein, Sharpton and D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee appeared together to announce the creation of the Education Equality Project, an advocacy group to reform a public education system they say has been paralyzed by special interests like teachers unions as well as political and parental indifference.
The group has yet to advocate any specific policies it wants to see enacted, but in general its leading members said they want to see greater accountability from teachers, more incentives to reward success, and greater parental responsibility for educating children.
“We are in an age where we are trying to move beyond race, but achievement in education is not beyond race,” said Sharpton. “Our children are drowning in the waters of indifference and old coalitions that no longer work and no longer care.”
The problem is not being fully addressed by the presidential candidates, the group said, because voters don’t want to hear about national government plans to impose new standards on local school boards.
Rhee noted that in her city, children who go to public schools in an affluent neighborhood get a “wildly different” education than students in the same school system who live in a poorer neighborhood.
She also voiced concern that some of her fellow Democrats are so critical of the federal No Child Left Behind law that emphasized standardized testing that they have lost sight of the point of the legislation.
“For too many years, we were not holding people accountable,” Rhee said.
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