Education — Civil Rights of the 21st Century

By James Castagnera

From John McCain’s acceptance speech, the line that stuck out for me was, “Education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.”

He went on to explain that for him that meant offering parents and students a choice among public, private and charter schools. That choice, of course, only has meaning if parents and students have a variety of schools from which to choose and the financial ability to buy into their schools of choice. More broadly, while the GOP presidential candidate is right about education’s central significance in the new century, his simplistic solution hardly scratches the surface.

In many major cities, high school graduation rates hover around 50%. In a few they dip below the .500 mark. This dismal fact ensures the perpetuation of what Karl Marx called the lumpenproletariat, which is to say, the ragged or rabble lower class. And this, in its turn, ensures perpetuation of the drug wars, gang wars and random killings that characterize our inner cities.

Meanwhile out in the land of suburban sprawl, teen obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, and the random shootings that periodically plague our schools all suggest that affluence alone does not ensure successful students. Taken in this context, the issue of education expands to include family issues, such as divorce rates.

Labor policy, likewise, must be included in the mix. One of the great ironies of our new century is that, while millionaire professional athletes have strong labor unions, workers on the bottom rungs of our economy are often as exploited as their 19th century counterparts. Labor organizations, such as the Service Employees International Union, have a hard time organizing these folks, given the lopsided way in which our National Labor Relations Act is interpreted by the federal courts and bureaucrats. Union prevention and union busting are only another cost of doing business for many major corporations, which also outsource what were once the better-paying positions to Asian and Latin American sweatshops.

Immigration policy also must be addressed in any comprehensive approach to American education. The Supreme Court has said that the children of illegal aliens are entitled to attend public schools. The law remains unsettled as to whether or not such students are also entitled to attend public colleges and universities and, if so, whether they are also entitled to in-state residents’ tuition breaks.

More broadly, are immigrants filling jobs that Americans don’t want to do? Or are Americans declining those jobs because of the low wages, lack of benefits, and miserable working conditions? The use of immigrant labor, legal and illegal, at the bottom of the economic barrel perpetuates the conditions that make these jobs unattractive to anyone but immigrant and migrant workers.

Last but not least is the rising cost of a college education. Too many of our young people are graduating with “mortgages” on their diplomas. Inefficiencies plague the higher education industry. Despite being the only major sector of the economy that can call on its past customers —- its alumni—to continue supporting its operations, and despite substantial gifts and grants from donors and foundations, higher education’s tuition rates continue to outpace inflation significantly. Thus, the proliferation of large student-loan debts.

Yes, Sen. McCain (and Sen. Obama), “Education IS the civil rights issue of the 2ist century.” And it is a complex issue, entangled with equally complex and challenging issues of family, labor, and immigration policy.

Jim Castagnera is associate provost and associate counsel at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. His novels and column collections are available at

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2008

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