Education funding and racial justice, by NEA Director Ed Sanderson

Let me begin by sharing several beliefs that are true for me. First, I have a core belief that we all have a right to “free agency,” or the right to choose for ourselves. It follows that, while it is not my intent to offend, if this article offends you, that it is your choice.

Second, I believe all men (and women) are created equal. There is no supreme race, color, religion or creed that is better than another. Rather, it is our choices and opportunities that separate us as individuals. It follows that we should be fighting to give everyone equal opportunities.

Third, we should always learn from our past. We should also add to that record as new information and facts come to light in order to strengthen our future. As educators, we have an obligation to help students understand history from a culturally relevant perspective.

Fourth, I firmly believe that most of our “racial justice” problems today are rooted in older generations and narrow-minded thinking. I believe racism and prejudice are taught. Most students I encounter are accepting of others and do not exhibit the behaviors of prejudice and racism.

And finally, I believe there is a bright future for all of us as we move forward.
Okay, my point from all of this…

I recently visited South Africa and saw firsthand a country moving toward racial equality. The process is slow and painstaking, but I could see efforts designed to improve the standard of living for that country’s most impoverished individuals and families.

From an education viewpoint, I was shocked and appalled by the differences in opportunity for children of color. There was very little racial integration. A glaring difference was the grounds around the schools. The Academies, or private schools, were immaculate and well cared for. In contrast, at the public schools, whose students are mostly of color, the grounds were barren. When I inquired, I was told the bare dirt is a safety feature, as deadly snakes will not enter the dirt field barriers. I wondered aloud why this was not an issue at the Academies. No one offered an answer.

All students at both types of schools wore uniforms. Like children in the United States, most were smiling and appeared happy. I did not have time to observe teaching methods or curriculum, but the difference in class size was obvious, with the Academies having lower student-teacher ratios.

The takeaway for me was this: The schools in South Africa are not just segregated by race, but also by wealth. All families want the best for their children, but some have more opportunities than others.

So, what is our task as teachers and educators? We need to continue doing whatever it takes to see that this education scenario does not continue in our country. Our president and his secretary of education are trying to further the divide, calling it “parent choice.” We cannot let this happen in any form! All children deserve opportunities that allow them to reach their full potential. Public tax dollars should not be diverted away to support private education. Parents already have choices and the public should reject sending tax dollars to private schools. The difference in all this is “opportunity.”

I am sure that South Africa will continue to move forward, as will we in the United States, towards a more racially just society. I believe it will not be easy, but things worth doing are sometimes hard. As educators, we need to step up and fight to see that every child has access to the same “opportunities” and a great education.

I’m excited for the coming school year and hope that you are ready join us in providing the best education and opportunity for all students. Have a great school year!