Opinion: Confronting challenges of American education,'civil rights issue' of our time
In a speech Wednesday, Mitt Romney proposed dramatically expanding school choice for low-income and disabled children.
May 24th, 2012
11:36 PM ET

Opinion: Confronting challenges of American education,'civil rights issue' of our time

Editor's note: Pedro Noguera is a professor at New York University and director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education. He is editor of "Unfinished Business: Closing the Achievement Gap in Our Nation's Schools" and author of "The Trouble With Black Boys ... And Other Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education."

By Pedro Noguera, Special to CNN

(CNN) - For the past 25 years I have been working as an educator, researcher and policy advocate. 

I am also the parent of four children who have attended public schools. 

In each of these roles I have tried to improve public education and advance the educational rights of children, particularly those who have historically been poorly served.
Given my background, I was pleasantly surprised by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's recent assertion that education was "the civil rights issue of our time".   

Romney is only the most recent politician to connect changes in education to civil rights. Similar remarks have been made by President Obama as well.

Typically, the politicians who make such declarations link it to a call for reform.

Romney has chosen to connect his declaration to the issue of choice and vouchers. 
The question is: Why does Romney believe that simply by promoting school choice the problems that plague public education in America will go away?

Perhaps Romney is not aware that choice and voucher systems have actually been around for a while, and in the cities that have adopted these policies, the challenges confronting American education have not gone away. 

Milwaukee has the oldest voucher system in the nation, yet studies have shown that students in the voucher schools perform no better than children in the public schools. 

The same is true for the other cities that have adopted choice plans that give parents the ability to apply for admission to a wide variety of public and charter schools. 
Consistently, research has found that choice has not increased access to high quality schools for most poor children, and while some charter schools provide access to a better education, more often they are no better than traditional public schools, and sometimes even worse, in improving academic outcomes.

If the evidence in support of choice is not there, why has Romney embraced it as the central element of his education platform? 
There are probably several reasons for this. 

For one, the idea of choice is appealing to many Americans. 
We like the freedom to exercise our options, be it in selecting our brand of coffee, or the shows we watch. 
Choice is also appealing to those who believe that competition will lead to more widespread improvements in schools, forcing schools to get better or risk losing children and going out of business. 
However, the choice systems that exist in several of our major cities have already shown that without access to reliable information on school quality, and without transportation to get to high quality schools, choice is illusory, and not an effective means to guarantee access to good schools. 

More importantly, in most choice systems, it is not the parents who choose, but the schools. 

 Many charter schools have found ways to under-enroll the most disadvantaged students.  Just because a low-income parent shows up at a highly rated private school with a voucher, there is no guarantee their child will get access. 

This is of course the big problem with choice and vouchers, a problem that advocates consistently ignore. 
Rather than leveling the playing field and increasing access to good schools, choice systems have the effect of concentrating the neediest children in the most troubled schools. 

 A study by the Massachusetts-based firm Parthenon (2010) on secondary schools in New York found that choice had resulted in the concentration of the most disadvantaged students in the city's failing schools.
Choice only works if there are plenty of good choices available. 

 In communities where poor children are concentrated, that is simply not the case. 

If Romney is truly interested in advancing the educational rights of American children, he might consider promoting evidence-based initiatives: providing incentives for teachers with a track record of effectiveness to work in “high need” schools; supporting the development of magnet schools like those that have been created in suburban communities in Connecticut that are not only more racially integrated, but also higher performing; expanding access to quality, early childhood education, because a vast body of research shows it to be a cost-effective means to close the preparation gap between poor and middle-class children; and support the development of full service schools like those that have been created by the Children’s Aid Society in New York that make it possible for schools to respond to some of the social needs of children that affect learning.

Of course, such initiatives will cost money, and while Romney and his allies may be opposed to increasing spending on public education, they should recognize that continued failure is even more expensive
Poverty and inequality are the biggest challenges facing American education today. 
We should be outraged that we spend four and even five times as much to incarcerate juveniles than we do to educate them, and they should be encouraged to know that education is the most effective means we have to deter criminal behavior and break the cycle of poverty.

Romney’s past experience in investments should lead him to look for sound investment opportunities in education. 
Choice may not be one of them, but there are plenty of other possibilities for using education to advance civil rights in the 21st century.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Pedro Noguera.

soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. India Berlin

    Education is a civil rights issue–everyone is allowed access to a public and equal education. Sorry, it is no equal. There's a reason most suburban schools are better than inner-city schools–because more parents are involved and hold their children accountable. Not always so–there are just as many 'bottom third' kids in the suburbs, except they aren't wielding knives or beating up other children.

    It makes me nearly vomit to hear all the anti-union faux-news soundbites. The union negotiates with the school district. There are many states without unions and without tenure, and the performance is the same. There are amazing dedicated teachers, average dedicated teachers, and then there are the inept. EVERY industry is like this. It is the principal's job to fill out the proper paperwork and do their job to get rid of the 'bottom third' of teachers. It has nothing to do with unions with the exception of a small percentage of cases.

    Teachers PAY into those pension plans. Again, makes me ill for the geniuses out there who seem to think it's just free money. Most of you complaining about pension plans are obviously short 20 IQ points because you FAIL to ask the right questions. You should be asking why your industry has no union to negotiate for them! And why you got some lame 401K plan that Wall Street conned the public into buying into. Let's not forget all the horrible insurance plans we're all paying into at rising costs.

    The only thing I can figure out is that the people who believe that they magically have some insight into the world of teaching, and complain about educators bankrupting the system, are former 'bottom third' students who aren't smart enough to use logic, research, and facts to add any small amount to their vapid arguments.

    People like me with nearly a doctorate, bi-lingual, world traveler, and awesome at teaching teens are SICK SICK SICK of the teacher-bashing. People like me are working on our resumes so we can get out of education because of the incredible amount of stress dealing with the onus of all of societies' failures upon our shoulders. In any situation where 2/3 of the group (parents and students) are NOT held accountable and only the other 1/3 (teachers) are left holding the bag, what else do you expect all of us smarties, Rhodes scholars, Fulbrighters, and generally great teachers to do? We sure as heck won't be staying in so the GOP can cheat us out our pensions and people can continue to bash on us. Nope, we'll go out and work in the private industry for double and triple our current salaries and then retire abroad.

    Good luck USA–you get what you pay for, and you certainly aren't paying for education not the best and brightest to stay in the profession. "Idiocracy" shall rule the land-it began when Reagan was in office. Oooh, horrible scary teachers! We're bankrupting the country! Egads! Someone call in Batman!

    May 28, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lil

      Education is not a civil rights issue, but gay marriage is...

      May 30, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
      • jhouston313

        I think we should just end marriage as we know it with all the tax breaks that married couples get as well as the tax breaks for having kids.

        August 1, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Andrew

    I believe so.

    Education is literally our most valuable resource to share with others. With it we expand people's view point and help better society in ways we can only imagine. If we provided the best possible education to everyone nothing but good things would come from it.

    Education is LITERALLY the greatest investment for ourselves in EVERY SINGLE aspect.

    May 28, 2012 at 3:27 am | Report abuse |
  3. 0rangeW3dge

    Equal education, like equality in general, is a Human Rights issue. This should be at the very foundation of any conversation concerning the responsibilities of a government to it's people. Without it, your people are merely slaves to whatever machine drives "the economy" or "protects the country's interests".

    May 27, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
  4. PalatineJD

    I find most of the comments I have read a sign of the real problem with early education. Education is one of the few "professions" where anyone can and usually does tell the teacher how to do the job. Of course most are working from real knowledge, rather than filter of selfish desires of their own. The only simliar case being politicians who respond only to the rich and powerful. How many of the local parents even try to talk to their political representative other than on voting day. But soon they will not even have that avenue of expression.

    May 27, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Revhychaiiyank

      Hi Class 3,I am looking fowrard to working with you during our QudBlogging project. My class are enjoying blogging at the moment and I hope that having a real audience for their work will mean that they enjoy it even more!I hope to get to know you all soon!Mrs Powell, Red 4, Moorside Primary, UK

      September 14, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Report abuse |
  5. steve

    Note: He points out that children in voucher schools do about e same. Fails to point out that they do so for MUCH LESS MONEY!! If publlic education is a civil right then our rights have been violated by crapppy overpriced public education. I homeschool and my kids do just as well as public school kids and don't have to get "socialized" by

    May 27, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jimmy G.

    Professor Noguera, don't you know that all these attempts at school vouchers in the last several decades has been one of the attempts by religious organizations to violate the First Amendment and get free government money?

    Are you really that naive?

    The whole reason behind the voucher attempts is to fund religious "schools" and de-fund public schools.
    It is a blatant attempt to get government dollars for private schools. That's it. There is nothing about "choice" in this debate at all. That is just a smokescreen. That's why Romney is for it – it's a way for the religious right to violate the First Amendment and get money as the cherry on top of the cake! And they are his strongest supporters.

    Perhaps you knew of this aspect to the voucher program attempts, but it sure doesn't look like it from here.

    May 27, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • steve

      Most of the charter schools that would take vouchers around here are not religious schools and why would it matter if they were? I'm for defunding crappy public schools that entrench horrible union teachers and shackle real education with government regulations that get in the way, I'm for getting better education for less money regardless of wether or not it involves a nun slapping knuckles or not. I'm sure you believe that pouring money into union coffers is the best way to teach johnny to read, many do not share that opinion.

      May 27, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |

    the College degree scam

    The Education Complex has created this stigma that somehow you are lacking if you don't have a college degree. If everyone has a college degree, then by definition that degree is devalued and not worth the paper it is written on. This is evident by the fact the many organizations are requiring a master degree to be eligible for management.
    I find this offensive. It is obviously in their own self interest to perpetuate this myth.Now that everyone believes this myth, they tell you that if you take out a $50,000 easy government loan and be a slave to the payments for the rest of your life you will have a good job and be fulfilled.Right, while you end up living with your parents because you can't find a job. If you were poor you are now poor and in debt up to your neck. Many will be in debt for most of their lives with no value from their worthless degree

    a college degree does not guarantee a job

    May 26, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • alex

      I have a collage degree, and I have my own business. In my small business with 25 employees, my engineering knowledge is the most fundamental asset. NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF "KNOW"

      May 27, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  8. JoeP199

    Local school boards and governments negotiate fiscally irresponsible contracts without including adequate provisions to ensure that teachers are held to high performance standards, then when the schools start to fail, they point their fingers at the unions and say "It's all THEIR fault" to protect their own cozy elected positions. Boot those bums out and elect some people who know what they're doing, and you'll see the schools start to improve.

    May 26, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
  9. loveamerica0

    When teachers have to meet standards to stay employed, when education is education instead of indoctrination, when tenure is eliminated altogether, when unions are pushed out of schools, when education is presented as important to a child from birth and onward, when heroes are educated rather than athletic or on pitch, when parents take responsibility for assisting in their childrens' education rather than pushing it off only on anonymous teachers, when kids are encouraged to learn and be responsible, ....... only then will education across the US improve everywhere and only then will virtually all children be raised learning that an education is their life goal for their first 18 years, and maybe beyond.

    May 26, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Saywhatyoumean

    Why does Romney push so much for school vouchers and "choice" ? Because, like so many others, he is in the pockets of rich religious institutions that stand to gain by getting more kids in their schools. Period.

    May 26, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Lost

    I don't have any answers. I'm tired. It's expensive to simply live. Work until you die to pay your way through life, educated or not (whatever "educated" means to you), and continue paying into a societal system that favors wealth and personal connections overall. I'd like to get ahead, but when, where, and how? Pursuit of happiness means absolutely nothing without some serious sacrifices...namely relationships, time, and health. I feel trapped by a cycle of pay as you go. Because of this, I've taught my children to draw upon their creativity and intelligence to make a way for themselves, and to manage finances without impulsiveness, to own some land. No use getting an education if your only main goal is to fill out an employment application, to compete with many others for one measly job. A job that will suck away your time, imagination, and energy. A job that helps someone else gain wealth and advantages at your expense. Then you either end up fired, laid off, or retired into uncertainty.

    May 26, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
  12. StanCalif

    Why educate American citizens? Foreigners are happy to pay these inflated prices for an American degree!
    After all, most of these foreigners made their wealth off of "business" with us!

    May 26, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • India Berlin

      Yes, and foreigners with degrees who speak two or three languages are far more inexpensive to hire than English-only Americans who say things like "We only speak American here! We don't speak no Mexican!" Yes, these geniuses are the people who just can't figure out where their jobs went while they were shopping all Wal-Mart and hoping their stocks were going to rise. Too stupid to see the connection of low-wage jobs at WM putting all the local, independent stores out of business and forcing wages to go down since the workers can't unionize (WM just breaks all the laws about employees unionizing–the fine? Slap on the wrist financially for a company as big as WM!), and that while their companies were downsizing and laying everyone off, they only did so to keep the stocks high.

      Americans don't care about other Americans anymore–why else would there be such an attack on teachers? Professors don't make so much money either unless they are doing major research. Tuition is ridiculous because we now have too many colleges, not enough regulation as to the quality being given out, we've gotten rid of trade programs, and only the wealthy can afford an education.

      May 28, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Kiss

    Get rid of tenure.

    May 26, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • India Berlin

      Tenure is only at the university level. Read much? Due-process is what it's called in public school systems. And if the system in place is used, it's not difficult to get rid of bad teachers; however, most administrators don't take the time to get rid of the inept or lazy because they're too busy taking phone calls from complaining parents about truancy or why Johnny didn't get an A in a class that 'he worked so hard for!" or why their kid is getting an F in math because he got caught cheating.

      Amazing how people who haven't got a freaking clue about how it really works say stupid things they don't have any iota as to the complexity of an issue. And, by the way, many states don't have 'tenure' and some districts don't even have unions. Try reading ten books by ten very different viewpoints on a subject and then come up with a one-liner.

      May 28, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |
  14. StanCalif

    Our colleges and universities are turning to foreign students who can afford to pay more! Why enroll American citizens when foreign citizens will gladly pay much more!

    May 26, 2012 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
  15. StanCalif

    Our "education system" (just like our "health care system") is the laughing stock in today's world! Politicians cannot "fix" what's wrong! The more they try, the worse it gets! Our public schools have become little more than day care centers for parents to send their kids to. Pamper them, feed them then send them home with nothing "learned".
    Our most important industries continue to complain about the lack of educated workers for them to hire. Is anyone out there listening? The latest "challenge" to educators is to control "bullying"! Come on! This is not what education is supposed to be about! Our system needs a total over haul. Bring back teaching and learning, get rid of all these "social" responsibilities placed on the educators. First step, ban all cell phones in schools! What student learns anything in class while texting? Stop all food programs, it is the parent's responsibility to provide proper nutrition for their off spring. Funny how they can't feed their kids but somehow their kid has a cell phone! Require every student to arrive at school with a proper meal brought from home, and NO cell phone! If parent's can't feed their kids, then they should not be producing them!
    Educators should be spending their time teaching, not being moral and social police!
    Our "higher education" colleges and universities are just as big of a mess as our public grade schools! Highly paid professors spend little, if any time teaching. Administrators are grossly over paid and under performing. Again, the problem is not doing the job of "educating"!
    From Grade 1 to graduating with a college/university degree is terribly disconnected from the idea of teaching students what they need to be productive in the "real world" where you just might have to do something productive for your employer! If you can land a government job, no problem. But business and industry needs people with real skills, or at least the intelligence to learn quickly on the job.
    Today, we are headed in the wrong direction! Our country, our economy cannot progress without educated people!

    May 26, 2012 at 11:00 am | Report abuse |
    • Heena

      I don't know where you are located but I know Cal State East Bay has a good Health Science praorgm with a couple of options. Health administration and Health Education. San Francisco State University has a Health Education Degree but its not called Health Science.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Missed the point.

    Don't communists hand out vouchers? Seriously , Rich man pays taxes but has money to send kid to private school. School system moves to voucher system....Private school accepts vouchers...Rich man now has voucher to give private school..(essentially a tax break).......Vouchers generally take money from poorer schools....Nothing says once private school has to enroll kids that can't get there.....Does this about sum it up......Government is not business....Business needs to stay out of Government...Greed in Government breeds corruption....Please Bush and Cheney were bussiness men and look how bad the fooked things up......But Haliburton sure is doing fine, isn't it.....

    May 25, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Report abuse |
  17. dh47

    We cannot fix the problems with the school/education system until we get the UNIONS out of our schools.
    Teachers will never be accountable until that happens.

    May 25, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • carolinaboy

      Unions are hardly the problem everywhere. In Southern states, like South Carolina for instance, teachers and other school officials are not allowed to be part of a union. Ergo, there is no union in the schools of the South. Come back when you have a valid argument that encompasses the entirety of the situation.

      May 25, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Its ok

      So its ok that the suits can pool their money and hire lawyers to better their positions but its not ok for the workers to do the same????? Sounds like your a discriminating kind of individual....

      May 25, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Maybe

      Maybe its time to take the IRRESPONSIBILITY out of INCORPORATION......Make the suits personally responsible for their wall street losses and maybe all the illegal gambling, fraud nonsense will stop.......The Hypocritical GOP-> Deregulate Banksters while Regulating Teachers......

      May 25, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • StanCalif

      Unions are certainly not to blame!
      I am 64 years old today and never belonged to any labor union. But, I have witnessed what has happened to "working people" since the Regan attack on unions began. At the time, I believed all the B/S of how unions were destroying America. I personally worked through many strikes as a member of "management". Today, I regret what I helped accomplished.
      The prosperous middle class in America existed for awhile because unions stood up for the workers. Today, our middle class is in dire straits. These are the people who spend money and make our economy vibrant. The only problem with union contracts was not because of union demands. The problem was ignorant management who could hire labor lawyers to fight off the workers representatives. As a result, retirement plans were gutted, health care plans were gutted, wages (to keep up with inflation) were gutted! Of course, managements never considered that retirement plans and health care were being destroyed by their own "friends". Nothing was ever done by employers to prevent what we now have today. Many, many people gave their whole lives to their employers. Now what do they have? Pension plans converted to 401k plans were robbed by Wall Street. Health care costs increased year after year, but no one ever bothered to get this under control. Insurance companies and health care companies were left alone to provide less and demand more in premiums – no questions asked!
      This was purely the fault of stupid management! Just as unions could pressure employers, employers could have (and should have) pressured their pension and health care insurers. This never happened!
      I wonder what would happen today if the AFL/CIO got on a plane and went to China! Possibly we would not be having all this debate about Chinese currency manipulation!

      May 26, 2012 at 11:47 am | Report abuse |
    • loveamerica0


      May 26, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • JoeP199

      Union employees, no matter what field they work in, get no more than what their representatives NEGOTIATE for. Every negotiation has two sides. If you think that the union contract is the problem, hold your representatives (the local school board and/or government) as much to blame for it as you do the union. The union only takes what the school board is willing to give, and if the school board acts in a fiscally and educationally sound manner, the contract will work for both sides. If the school board is willing to "give away the store", why do you hold the union responsible? Boot out your incompetent school boards and local governments and elect people that know what they're doing.

      May 26, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Steve, New York City

    People bash lawyers, bash real estate brokers, bash Wall Street, insurance companies and the like (and sometimes, these folks need bashing).

    However, it AMAZES me that Washington says nothing about college tuition that does nothing, but wildly exceed inflation rates year after year. Maybe because many in Washington on both sides of the political establishment (Darrel Issa, Nancy Pelosi) are super-rich, and don't get it! Unaffordable college education, in my view, is the singular, most frightening, long-term social threat to the United States. How can this be? How can top schools explain why they keep increasing education costs so wildly? Do they want the best and the brightest, or only wealthy, pompous debutants (whose parents are already rich enough to have afforded private/boarding schools), and the "stupid" wealthy (like Bush # 43)?

    Why doesn't congress force top educators to testify, especially if they are being subsidized by the government.

    May 25, 2012 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Kiss

      I agree 100% how can they justify the expense. The reason why kids have to get large loans.

      May 26, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • StanCalif

      They all use the same excuse. "We have to pay competitive wages"! University management is grossly overpaid for what they deliver. Most are paid for what they can extract in donations from alumni, not for what they can deliver in real education. Today, foreign students are being recruited because they can afford to pay! It's all about the money, who cares about actually educating American citizens?

      May 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • jhouston

      I totally agree with you.

      August 1, 2012 at 7:36 am | Report abuse |