The Civil Rights Issue of the '90s

As a sixth-grade public school student in 1963, I was asked to deliver a speech about brotherhood that my class had written to commemorate National Brotherhood Week. The riots which accompanied James Meredith's enrollment at the University of Mississippi had occurred a year earlier and photographs of the dogs and firehoses then being turned on demonstrators in Birmingham were fresh in the minds of Americans everywhere.

The closing words of that speech, suggested by our teacher, have remained with me ever since. They were words of another Long Island student, an African-American girl, who said in a forensics competition: "Take my hand, for it is clean; take my heart, for it is pure; but do not refuse me justice because of the color of my skin; for if you do, I will refer you to God who made me."

Nostalgia for the 1960s civil rights movement runs strong in the 1990s. And a growing number of parents, policy makers, and citizens are beginning to recognize and advocate a new dimension of civil rights for our time: school choice.

Modern-day teacher unions often tout the role that government schools played in forging national unity, but their current opposition to school choice has placed them in conflict with poor inner-city parents, at odds with American ideals of liberty and justice, and on the wrong side of history. The ultimate threat to government schools comes not from caring parents seeking the best school for their child but from self-interested teacher unions who secure generous salaries and benefits from inner-city school systems which graduate only one of every four students who enter the ninth grade.

In the years since delivering the Brotherhood Week speech I have been privileged to work in Congress for the late Senator Hubert Humphrey and in the White House for former President George Bush. However, it was only in the past five years, while working in the inner-city for Bret Schundler, Mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey, that I fully grasped how far many of America's school systems have strayed from their ideals.

In 1995, PepsiCo approached Mayor Schundler's office with a proposal that would have resulted in a contribution from the company to a college scholarship program for every case of Pepsi products sold in Jersey City. We thanked them for the offer, but explained that the great majority of kids in Jersey City had no hope of going to college. More than half of those who had entered public high schools were dropping out, and fewer than half of those who remained were able to pass a basic test required for graduation.

Would Pepsi consider, we asked, contributing to a new, privately funded scholarship program being established to help low-income parents who want to send their children to private elementary and secondary schools? This plan involved no government funds, would ease the burdens on the city's over-crowded schools, and would let poor people exercise the same choices enjoyed by more affluent parents, including the majority of Jersey City's government school teachers who send their children to private schools.

Pepsi agreed, and the scholarship program was announced to an approving media and a grateful city. But within a day we saw how ruthless those in control of the education monopoly were prepared to be in order to thwart choice and competition. Pepsi machines in public schools were vandalized throughout the city, and an official of the public schools (whose children had attended private schools) called Pepsi officials into her office to state that school choice was "elitist" and protest Pepsi's involvement in the scholarship program. The president of the Jersey City teacher union, who sent both of his sons to an elite private school, also threatened boycotts of Pepsi products. The company, which does considerable business in government schools, immediately withdrew.

School choice can be delayed, but it will not be denied. The most powerful human instinct, the love of parents for their children, will overcome the heartless union leaders who would leave children in schools where they have a better chance of receiving a prison sentence than they do a diploma. Polls now show strong majorities in Michigan and across America in favor of school choice. Political and religious leaders and the courts are increasingly giving the idea a thumbs-up.

Americans are starting to recognize school choice as an important chapter in the civil rights movement. But what will history say of those who denied justice, stood in the doorway, blocked private initiatives, thwarted the potential and ruined the lives of so many millions of students? Perhaps, like the Long Island girl, we can only refer them to the God who made us all.