All across America, preparations are underway for high school graduation. It’s a glorious time, representing both a milestone and a gateway to adulthood.
But missing from this year’s ceremonies are more than one million kids who dropped out and will not be attending graduation day.
The future those high school dropouts face is chilling. They will have a much harder time getting a job and will earn much less than those who did graduate. They’re also more likely to commit a crime and more likely to be the victim of one.
In short, many of them face a life that will be so much more difficult—all because they could not or chose not to finish high school.
The consequences of this crisis are especially evident in my community. Today, more than half of all African-American students in many large U.S. cities don’t graduate from high school. Think about that.
And those kids aren’t just dropping out—they’re escaping.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, schools that serve majority-minority communities have the worst performance, the highest crime rates, and the largest achievement gaps.
In cities like Detroit, more than nine in 10 black students can’t even read or do math at grade level.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
In 1954, the Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, ruling that school segregation is unconstitutional. “Massive Resistance” soon followed as many states launched an all-out effort to block integration.
My home state of Virginia was one of them, and anti-reform forces there mobilized to prevent black students from going to whites-only schools. They succeeded for a while but, in 1960, the first contingent of brave black students changed all that.
I was a member of the second contingent and, in 1961, was one of 26 black students assigned to integrate John Chandler Middle School in Richmond.
As the first day of school approached, we heard ominous threats of “blood flowing in gutters.” Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Instead, the only blood I saw was mine.
For the first month at Chandler, I never made it through the packed hallways between classes without at least one white student pricking me with a pin.
Sometimes, I was stuck so many times I had to press my dress against my body to keep the red streams from dripping down my legs.
It was awful, but it was worth it. In my own little way, I knew I was fighting for our equal right to get a great education.
Little did I know that more than half a century later, other girls and boys would still be fighting for education equality. Many of those kids are African-American like me, and the families many of them come from are poor and broken, like mine was.
But I was able to attend a better school, and they aren’t. Instead, anti-reform forces are blocking them from going to better-performing public charter and private schools.
Today, the nemesis isn’t the old Massive Resistance crowd, but a similarly determined cartel of unions, bureaucrats, and politicians. They make a great deal of money from the current system in the form of union dues, salaries, and political contributions.
As a result, they view education equality as a threat and anyone seeking it as their enemy.
Just ask Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Appearing before Congress recently, DeVos testified that her goal is “ensuring that every student has an equal opportunity to receive a great education.”
But rather than be hailed for seeking the equality promised decades ago, she’s being attacked by those who want things to stay just as they are.
But the secretary isn’t just right—she’s echoing the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling which declared education to be “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
Today in America, that right is conditional. If you are wealthy, white, connected, or elected, your child probably goes to or graduated from a great school.
But if you are African-American or Latino and living in a poor urban neighborhood, your child is much more likely to go to a failing school, a school where more than half of all students can’t read or write well, have low math scores, face the daily threat of bullying and violence, and won’t graduate.
Do these sound like “equal terms” to you?
In place of the equality mandated by the Supreme Court, we have disparities that are so shocking they defy belief.
Right now, America’s public school system includes outstanding institutions where students get an excellent education, use the best academic, athletic, and cultural facilities tax dollars can buy, and go on to college and promising lives.
And the same school system also includes failure factories where students don’t learn, spend their days in dilapidated and crime-infested buildings, fall further and further behind, and often drop out.
Now, which of these schools do you think is most often found in poor minority neighborhoods?
The reality, as House Speaker Paul Ryan has put it, is that the current system is effectively quarantining poor and minority children in failure factories.
For the sake of all those high school dropouts who will miss out on this month’s graduations, our nation needs the proponents of education equality to prevail.
Every single child—no matter their race, income, gender, or address—has the equal right to receive an excellent education. And every day in which that right isn’t a reality is a day in which we are losing more of these precious children.