John Payton, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., was invited to give remarks this week on the state of elementary and secondary education at the Centennial Conference of the National Urban League. He followed to the podium Arne Duncan, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. Both were introduced by Marc Morial, the President and CEO of the Urban League.
Thanks Marc for that introduction. And thank you for inviting me to be part of this tremendous centennial convention of the National Urban League.
I work at mission driven organization, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. We are the country’s first civil rights law firm; in today’s nomenclature, the country’s first human rights law firm. I believe we remain the finest.
We face a crisis in education, as Secretary Duncan just said in his remarks.
All of us on the program this afternoon have been asked to look back on the last hundred years with respect to education and the Black community. I want to look to the past in order to put the present into a sharp perspective.
I have heard people say, almost casually, that segregated schools did a better job of educating than today’s troubled public schools. That is incorrect. Separate but equal was a false label. Separate and unequal was the reality. In fact those racially segregated schools did a poor job with respect to most of their black students. The drop out rate was very high for the boys. Some communities had no high school for black students at all. But, there was a different reality in our economy then. Then a high school drop out, even a black high school drop out, could often get a good job working in a factory, in a steel mill, or on a car assembly plant. And become a member of a union. Buy a home; raise a family; send his children to college.
But not today. Those jobs, the ones that did not require educational proficiency, are literally gone. And here is the point: the economy then was forgiving of the deficiencies of our educational system; the economy today is not. In addition, the economies of our inner cities have had to deal with white flight and the collapse of their tax bases.
Today, as we all know, inner city schools fail to graduate half of their students. Half of our students.
What happens to those kids today, those kids that lack the skills required by our economy? You know the depressing answer to that critical question. There are no jobs for them.
Here is a terrifying data point. For the generation of Black people born from 1965-1969 – some of you here today – for that generation, for those Black men in that generation that did not finish high school, by the time they were thirty five, 1999 or so, by that time 58.9% of them would have been at some point in prison. This data point is from Bruce Western’s book “Punishment and Inequality in America.”
Our schools are in a state of catastrophe. But here is what we know: virtually every single child can be educated. And here is also what we know: every single child must be educated.
That begins with the recognition of the catastrophe and the necessity of the solution.
These are very difficult problems. They require money of course, and political will, but also dedication and commitment. Secretary Duncan said that he would challenge us, and we should welcome that challenge. But we must also challenge each other. And we must challenge Secretary Duncan. We need everyone’s commitment. These are very difficult problems that demand a solution.
I am speaking as the head of the Legal Defense Fund. As lawyers, we will be the voice of reason, but as an organization whose mission is to make us the society we must be, we will be the cutting edge of change.
Certainly that is the commitment of the Legal Defense Fund and the Urban League and all of us here today. To make us a healthy and thriving society in which justice and equality can flourish.
Let’s get to work.