More than 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King gave his inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech, recent events make it clear that Atlanta does not give everyone a fair shot at achieving Dr. King’s dream:
…when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at Last! Free at Last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Four recent events show how far we still have to go. First, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen publicly admitted that the $600 million enterprise she runs was “broken” and that APS did not have a sufficient number of quality teachers. Second, DeKalb County Superintendent Steve Green unveiled a plan to “escape the Opportunity School District” by somehow converting the close to 70 woefully performing schools at risk of being taken over by the state into high-performing schools. Third, Georgia State University released a study of population, employment, and per capita income growth for metro Atlanta from 1990-2013 that concluded:
The Atlanta metropolitan area enjoyed robust growth between 1990 and 2013 when measured by the increase in population and unemployment. Only three metropolitan areas experienced large increases. However, as measure by per capita income, Atlanta has done very poorly. The data suggests that while Atlanta has been attracting people and jobs, the jobs it has added pay less than the jobs going to most other large metropolitan areas…
In fact, the GSU study found that Atlanta had one of the largest decreases in per capita income over the period — $2,000. Finally, and perhaps most telling, the University of Washington Center for Reinventing Public Education released a report called “Measuring Up: Educational Improvement and Opportunity in 50 Cities.”
While the first three events are by themselves unsettling, it’s the report from the University of Washington that should serve as a call to arms. The study analyzed, using a variety of publicly available data, the health of school systems in 50 cities, as well as the educational opportunity offered to students from low-income households and students of color, finding four themes common to all 50 cities:
While those four themes applied throughout the country, the picture painted of Atlanta was not flattering, with two charts, found at pages 33-34 of the report, making the problem crystal clear.
In reading and math, Atlanta ranks dead last among the 50 cities in terms of the ratio of black and Hispanic attending the city’s lowest-performing schools compared to white students. Black students are 126 times more likely than white students to attend one of the lowest-performing school in math, and 75 times more likely to attend one of the lowest-performing schools in reading. Hispanic students are 52 times more likely than whites to attend a low-performing school in math, and 20 times more likely in reading. The ratios are flipped when you consider how likely minority students are to attend a high-performing school. Ninety percent of white students in APS attend a top-scoring school in math, compared to just 14 percent of black students, with nearly the same ratio seen in reading.
When the leaders of two institutions spending over $1.5 billion annually admit they’re running broken systems, they’re telling us that the nearly 150,000 students in their systems are not being prepared to compete for good jobs in the information and technology-driven 21st century economy. When one of our largest universities publishes a report concluding that “Atlanta — and Georgia — needs to rethink its economic development strategy, both in terms of types of jobs that are being added and the skill levels of the workers,” we begin to understand how the failures of our K-12 education system can lead to lower per capita income. But the biggest blow to Atlanta’s view of itself comes from the clear evidence found by the University of Washington that the educational opportunities offered low income minority students are as bad, if not worse, than existed when Dr. King gave his speech.
What can every citizen do to help realize Dr. King’s 50-year-old dream? First, acknowledge the obvious. Without placing blame, recognize that what we’ve done for the last several decades is not working and admit we have a serious problem. Second, be humble enough to admit that we don’t have a solution for every problem, nor should we depend on superman superintendents to solve the problem for us. Third, recognize the real issue is our failure to give the poorest of us the same choices and opportunities we give middle and upper-income families. We must demand that our political leaders at all levels of government — local, state and federal — implement policies that give all families the freedom and the economic means, through charter schools, tuition tax-credit scholarships, public vouchers and education savings accounts, to pursue the same quality of educational opportunities provided those who can buy a house in the right zip code, or pay for private school tuition.
Most of all, we should heed the words of Dr. King who, in his historic speech, remained optimistic. As he said:
…Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
Let’s face today’s difficulties, making a better tomorrow possible, by giving all of our children, regardless of their color or family income, an equal shot at realizing Dr. King’s dream for America.
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