Worcester Telegram & Gazette: Ed reform truly is matter of civil rights

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By Sephira Shuttlesworth (This op-ed originally appeared in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette on Nov. 7, 2014)

To many, it’s become a cliché to describe education reform as the civil rights issue of our time. But for some of us it’s deeply personal. My late husband, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, saw educational opportunity for all as the fulfillment of the civil rights dream to which he dedicated his life.

As a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and a Birmingham, Alabama pastor, he led marches against segregated lunch counters and helped organize perilous Freedom Rides through the South. Later he persuaded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC to join the campaign to desegregate Birmingham, then, perhaps, America’s most segregated city. Prophetically, Fred wrote to Dr. King, “As Birmingham goes, so goes the nation.”

It was the Birmingham Campaign’s Project C (for confrontation) that led to images of young African-American students being knocked down with high-pressure fire hoses, Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, the March on Washington, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Fred was arrested 38 times and survived several attempts on his life. After the Ku Klux Klan bombed his home on Christmas in 1956 in retaliation for his efforts to desegregate Birmingham’s buses, he said, “God gave me a hard skull because he knew I lived in a hard town.”

In Massachusetts, charter schools are realizing my husband’s dreams. A Stanford University study found that the commonwealth has the nation’s best charters, and that Boston charter schools are doing more to close race- and poverty-based achievement gaps than any other group of public schools in the country.

But to paraphrase the poet Robert Frost, we still have miles to go before we sleep. Despite charter schools’ outstanding performance, a recent effort to raise the statewide charter cap failed in the face of entrenched resistance from teachers unions and the education establishment. I’m not against teachers’ rights or teachers unions, but they too often protect teacher wrongs.

I also see educational opportunity for all as the fulfillment of everything for which my husband fought. Toward that goal, I work in a school that implements the SABIS model that is used in three Massachusetts charter schools and has been the driving force behind getting every graduate from those schools accepted to college. The SABIS International Charter School in Springfield has repeatedly been recognized by U.S. News and World Report and Newsweek as one of the nation’s best high schools.

But attempts to extend the opportunity we provide to more urban students in Massachusetts have been thwarted.

In 2008, a school that would have used this model became the first charter proposal recommended for approval by the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education to ever be rejected by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Discussion about the proposed Brockton charter school, which would have served a minority-majority city, centered on a 2005 Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) letter that identified problems at SABIS’ Springfield school.

Days after the new charter school’s application was rejected, a 2006 DESE letter surfaced that said the Springfield school had successfully addressed all material issues raised in the earlier letter. School officials were at the board meeting and could have clarified the situation, but they were not allowed to speak.

When confronting injustice, truth is supposed to be the best light.

Given SABIS’ proven record closing achievement gaps, last year the Brockton charter proposal was revived. But, despite the fact that Brockton doesn’t have a single charter and is among the lowest-performing school districts in Massachusetts, the proposal was again rejected. The opposition was led by powerful, well-funded special interest groups.

The battle still rages on a half century after people like my late husband repeatedly put their lives on the line to fight for equality.

Few concepts are more central to the principles on which this nation was founded than the idea that all children have a birthright to the educational opportunity that empowered Fred Shuttlesworth to rise up from rural Southern discrimination and poverty.

Upon Fred’s death, President Obama released a public statement and I received a condolence call from Nelson Mandela. This is an exemplar of how an ordinary person can positively change the world.

Sephira Shuttlesworth is Director of the Mid-Michigan Leadership Academy, which is a member of the SABIS network of schools in the U.S.