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Askwith Panel: Education Should Be Civil Right

Education is not a civil right in the United States agreed a group of education panelists at a recent Askwith Forum. At “Educational Opportunity and Changing Demographics,” offered in conjunction with the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Think Tank, the panelists also agreed, however, that it’s time to make education a civil right or else the future of the nation is threatened.

Professor Fernando Reimers, who moderated the forum, opened with the question of whether the popular saying “Education is a Civil Right” is actually true. This gave way to a discussion about the factors that limit educational opportunities of African American, Latino, and immigrant students, as well as the great need to find ways to address barriers to access.

“We should make it a civil right,” said Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter. “How can we call ourselves an advanced nation without health and education rights?”

With a rising immigrant population, a well-documented achievement gap between white students and students of color, and broadening gaps in wealth of Americans, Deb Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education for the U.S. Department of Education, said that the odds that are against these children were are really related to a gap in “educational opportunity.” From birth, many of students of color are faced with the reality that they have fewer opportunities to excel and also with people believing they can’t achieve, she said.

“We talk a good game about education for all, but all doesn’t mean all,” Delisle added.

That educational opportunity gap follows many immigrants and students of color who graduate high school as they head into college. Miami Dade College President Eduardo J. Padrón and Morgan State University President David Wilson expressed concerns about college access and escalating costs in higher education keeping students of color and immigrants from furthering their educations.

“I have to send home 600 to 1,500 students every semester because they don’t have the $2,000 to finish,” Wilson said.

Richard Freeland, Massachusetts Department of Higher Education commissioner of higher education, painted an equally grim picture, even in states like Massachusetts which have become models.

“The victory is that we are not losing but we are certainly not gaining,” he said, expressing frustration that education continues to be “shelved” as an important issue, often in the face of other issues deemed more urgent.

In the next decade, America will see drastic shifts in its immigrant and minority population. Reimers, expressing concerns for these minority groups, pointed out how in 15 years, one-third of the American population will be Latino.

“Education opportunity will make or break America. It’s as simple as that,” Padrón said, noting that part of the problem is how we think too much in 20th-century terms rather than 21st-century terms.

Kanter called for advanced leaders to become more innovative. “It is not enough to think outside of the box, we have to think outside of the building,” she said, adding that it isn’t solely the responsibility of educators to deal with the problem but rather a “cross sector, multi-stakeholder coalition.”

Freeland contended that it isn’t simply a matter of doing what we know works or developing new innovations but really creating a world where everyone wants to invest in education. He cited a lack of willingness among the public and politicians to raise taxes to support educational improvements.

“If we only keep talking about moral imperative or political will … I get depressed because what do our advanced leaders do?” Kanter said.

But Delisle remained hopeful, sharing how often she visits schools across the country and sees amazing things. However, she noted, the media rarely reports about the good things happening in education. “There are not as many bridge builders as arrow slingers,” she said.