The facts on the education achievement gap in the United States are grim. By fourth grade Black students are, on average, nearly three years behind their White counterparts. Nationally, 55 percent of Black students graduate from high school, compared to 78 percent of White students. The Reverend Al Sharpton says these conditions amount to a crisis, and he's hoping to build a new movement to change it.
On Saturday the civil rights activist returns to Washington, D.C.—earlier this month, he met with President Barack Obama at the White House to discuss education reform—for a rally dedicated to bridging the achievement gap. Coinciding with the 55th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Sharpton will be joined at a park outside the White House by speakers including Education Secretary Arne Duncan. ESSENCE.com spoke with Sharpton about the event, his meeting with Obama, and who he thinks is responsible for the education gap.
ESSENCE.COM: Your rally is "a call to action." What are you calling on people to do exactly?
REVEREND AL SHARPTON: I'm saying that all of us have part of the blame for where we are—those that are administrating the school system, those in government that are funding unequally, teachers who are failing, parents and community leaders who are not involved. So I'm calling on all of us to admit that the system is broken and that, 55 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Blacks are still facing the same gap in education that they did 55 years ago. It's an alert on Saturday, to say that we have a crisis, and all of us need to commit ourselves to doing our part.
ESSENCE.COM: You're holding the rally on the 55th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. There's a theory that school integration has had a negative impact for African-Americans—that had we focused on educating our children ourselves, we may have had better success with that.
SHARPTON: I think some of that criticism is valid; I think some of it is not. Part of the problem is that, in some areas, we integrated the schools and didn't integrate the money. The communities of color that were left were underfunded and got the worst type of personnel. The end goal of Brown v. Board of Education was for every American child to have an equal and quality education. The method of integration started, in my opinion, outweighing the goal. When integrating the schools did not work, it left us in many cases segregated and unequal in terms of resources.
ESSENCE.COM: Last week you met with President Obama, along with Newt Gingrich and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to reach a consensus on ideas for education reform. What were those ideas exactly?
SHARPTON: We can all agree that there's inequality. We can all agree that everyone must be held accountable. And we can all agree there must be equal funding. The things we disagree on, we'll continue to debate. I don't agree with vouchers; Gingrich does. I don't agree with total mayoral control; Bloomberg does. The President's appeal was, "I know where you guys are different. What can you agree with that the administration can agree with?" Those are the three broad areas we agreed on.
ESSENCE.COM: There hasn't been mass mobilization around education in the African-American community. What do you think it's going to take to get there?
SHARPTON: Rallies like this, and the President using the bully pulpit. I don't think most people understand how bad it is. When we came out the White House, I can't tell you the amount of people who stopped me and said, "I didn't realize over 50 percent of Black kids were high school dropouts. How are they going to make it in a world where now you can't get a secure job at a factory?" I think part of the reason we have not had a sense of urgency is that there has not been a public alarm about the issue. It's kind of like with police brutality. We had the problem for a long time, but it took the film of Rodney King for people to understand how bad it was. I think first we need to make it clear that we are in a crisis.
ESSENCE.COM: You mentioned school vouchers, which a majority of African-Americans actually support. The argument being: why have all of our kids suffered in failing schools when you can give some of them a better opportunity?
SHARPTON: I understand the argument. I just think that the role of government is to ensure an equal quality education for everyone; not just some. When we say, "Why should everybody suffer"—who decides who the "somebodies" are that don't suffer? I think if private organizations and churches want to do that, fine. But I don't think government should be choosing between who should be saved and who isn't. They ought to be restructuring the old public school system to save everyone. I believe every child can learn if we innovate and figure out how to do that.
ESSENCE.COM: President Obama has proposed increased spending toward education as an investment for the future. But how much influence can he have at the federal level with regard to reforming the public school system?
SHARPTON: I think his plan is very promising, but like he said, it will not work unless it comes from the bottom up. It's got to be a connection between the White House and those on the ground. What the federal government can do, especially if there's a parent and community movement around it, is say to state governments and school boards that we will not put federal funding in an unequal situation. But there must be mobilization for that climate to exist.