Learning Offers True Emancipation

Black Leaders on Education: But, the Urban League's chief asks, are we willing to invest in our kids?

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(Special to The Root) — Continuing their historical practice of working together to address issues of concern to the African-American community, the NAACP, National Urban League, United Negro College Fund and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund are working cooperatively to improve educational opportunities for all students. This week we will run op-eds by the leaders of each organization that address a crucial aspect of what it will take to prepare our young people to succeed in life. Today: The president of the National Urban League addresses our willingness to invest in education. See previous essays in the series here. 

This year we commemorate two pivotal moments in African-American history: the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the great March on Washington. As we reflect on where our journey has brought us, we must also acknowledge the high-stakes work left to do.

The more overt aspects of racism are largely behind us, but there remains a more insidious inequality that stifles the social and economic progress we have made and threatens our ability to build on those gains: the need for adequate and equitable funding for education.

It is a tragedy that in many states and counties, the investment we make to educate our children too often is dictated by race and geography. If we are to honor the milestones we observe this year and continue the work of those who fought before us, we must stand firm for the idea that a high-quality education is everybody’s right — not just those with the right ZIP code.

The disparities in educational investment throughout the country are stark and troubling. Recent reports offer sobering evidence of just how far we still need to go to realize the promise of full equality.

The Education Law Center reported last year that while the U.S. spends more per student than other developed countries (pdf), the regions with the highest concentration of minority populations — the South and West — also see the lowest levels of education funds.

The same report showed that only 17 states employ progressive funding systems — that is, systems that provide more funding to high-poverty districts. And six states — Illinois, North Carolina, Alabama, Michigan, Texas and Colorado — have regressive systems in which high-poverty districts actually receive less funding than their wealthier neighbors.

That our educational system has been allowed to deteriorate to this deplorable state is a national disgrace. It’s no wonder that African-American students continue to lag behind their peers in achievement, college readiness and college completion. As noted in our 2012 State of Black America report:

* According to the Department of Education, 1.3 million African-American students drop out of high school every year, and of those who do remain in school, only about 50 percent will graduate on time.