Education’s race to the top: A question of equality, civil rights and opportunity

As we mark the passing of United States Sen. Ted Kennedy and celebrate his unwavering commitment to civil rights and public education, California has an opportunity to show the nation that we share his vision that children from all walks of life must have access to a quality education.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in the spirit of Senator Kennedy, are challenging education officials here in California and across America to transform education. Obama's reform agenda offers our most disadvantaged students new options and new hope for a path to college or a good job rather than (as Kennedy said) "a lifetime of poverty and lost opportunity."

But let me be clear – this race is not just about the $4.35 billion Race to the Top funds, which Duncan will award to states implement innovative education reforms. The Race to the Top is about setting a course – embracing a set of principles that will form the foundation of California's approach to public education. The questions we ask and what we accomplish in this Special Session will put an indelible print on the future of public education in California long after most of us have left this building.

The Race to the Top is about Equality – ensuring that every child from every background has access to a quality education, including effective teachers and principals.

The Race to the Top is about Opportunity -a commitment to turning around historically lowest-performing schools and dropout factories and offering new choices to parents so their children have schools that will send them off to college or a good job rather than to prison.

The Race to the Top means recognizing that education is a Civil Rights issue. When the Governor announced this Special Session, one of those who stood with him was Alice Huffman, the president of the state NAACP, which has been fighting for equal educational opportunities since it was founded a century ago. It has been 50 years since they achieved the landmark ruling that separate is not equal through the filing of Brown v. Board of Education.

Half a century later, we again have segregation in our public school system. Nearly 80 percent of students in our lowest-performing schools are African American or Latino. Poor students and students of color are four times more likely to have under-prepared teachers. We have an achievement gap for African Americans, Latinos, and English learners that is both persistent and pernicious.

I know these issues are complex: controversies surround the use and effectiveness of standardized tests and how these can be linked effectively to student achievement. But I believe we have the talent to sort these out. This Race to the Top will reveal our California character- and the nation will be watching to see who we really are. Now is our time to assess how far we've come, and ask ourselves how far we are willing to go to reach the new frontier in education exploration and excellence.

The status quo is unacceptable. We may never have an opportunity like this again. California has begun to rise to the challenge, as discussed last Wednesday at a Senate Education Committee hearing on "Race to the Top." The next day, the Senate convened the Governor's special session on education and I introduced SBX5 1 with Senators Bob Huff, Elaine Alquist, and Mark Wyland as joint authors. The questions we ask and what we accomplish in this Special Session will put an indelible print on the future of public education in California long after most of us have left this building.

This bipartisan measure has true promise for turning around California's historically low-performing schools. The bill encourages implementation of reforms to make California competitive for the Race to the Top grant. To do so, California must focus on giving students in low-performing schools new hope for a better future.

Both President Obama and Secretary Duncan have said-this is our moment; this is our time. In California, as a Senator from East Los Angeles, I would put it another way: this is our time to stand and deliver.

In the name of the 6.3 million children in California's public schools, especially those most in need, we must remind ourselves again and again of Senator Kennedy's refrain: "The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dreams shall never die."

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