By Marc Porter Magee, Vallay Varro and Ingrid Reynoso
The day after the Ferguson verdict, we gathered the staff of 50CAN together to share our varied thoughts and perspectives. Many of us were still in shock and weren’t ready to talk. Others were away with family but made time to call in because, as a team, the verdict and its implications affected us deeply and we needed to share how we were feeling with our friends and colleagues. One thing was certain: everyone thought what was happening in Ferguson was very deeply linked to our work.
The exchange made it clear that we needed to have this discussion with the larger world of education thought leaders and advocates. The staff of 50CAN is very diverse and brings a wide range of experiences and perspectives to this conversation, so no one post can or will capture those views. But as the leadership of the organization, we wanted to share a few thoughts on why we believe that what has happened and is happening in Ferguson is central to education reform. Other members of the 50CAN family will be sharing their views on this blog in the days and weeks to come.
We believe that ensuring all Americans receive a high-quality education regardless of their address is a critical element of any approach to addressing the problems we see in Ferguson and in communities—particularly those of color—around the country. We believe this because we have seen firsthand the transformative power of great teachers and great schools in the lives of their students.
But we also recognize that the injustice of an unequal education is just one of many interconnected and deeply rooted injustices that must be undone if we are to create the society of opportunity we seek. And we cannot afford to be silent on the other injustices that work against the students we are working so hard to serve through our education advocacy campaigns.
The tragic death of Michael Brown reminds us of the many instances where black youth face an unequal, disproportionately punitive treatment by the American criminal justice system. While blacks and whites use drugs at the same rate, “black people were 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for drugs than white people.”
Once convicted of a crime, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that “prison sentences of black men were nearly 20 percent longer than those of white men for similar crimes.” One effect of our system of mass incarceration is that one of every 13 blacks in America is no longer eligible to vote.
It should also force us to confront the similar injustices that are rooted in our education institutions. For example, as RiShawn Biddle has pointed out, the out-of-school suspension rate for black students is three times that of their white peers and “the gap in suspension rates has increased over the past three years.”
We need to recognize that as much as education policy reforms can help communities—and we believe that nothing is more fundamental and transformational than a great education—these reforms will be most effective as part of a much larger effort that also takes on needed reforms in our criminal justice system and the many other institutions that are working against students in reaching their full potential.
Unfortunately, far too often the solutions to these many and varied problems fall short of the scale and scope needed to overcome the huge challenges our communities face. Perhaps Ta-Nehisi Coates said it best when he wrote: “the Fergusons of America can be changed—but, right now, we lack the will to do it.”
As education advocates, we know we don’t have all the answers but we are eager to contribute to the building up of the public will to tackle these problems with bolder solutions. We are working to do so by investing in the diverse local leaders whose experiences and commitment to their communities best position them to craft solutions that will enable real progress. We are optimistic that our future need not be one limited by the many ways we have fallen short as a country, but instead, defined by the highest aspirations of America as a land of opportunity for all.