Edelman on equal education

Children's advocate Marian Wright Edelman stresses the importance of equal access to education for underprivileged youth.

Policies and institutions that neglect youth are creating a cradle-to-prison pipeline that threatens to swallow a generation and weaken the nation, said children’s advocate Marian Wright Edelman.

“The most dangerous place for a child to grow up today is at the intersection of race and poverty,” said Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. “Incarceration is becoming the new apartheid, especially for poor children and children of color as the fodder.”

Photo: Cheryl Mowczan
Marian Wright Edelman is the founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund.

Edelman, who has been an advocate for the poor and children for more than 40 years, spoke Tuesday at Hendricks Chapel.

Edelman’s roots in civil rights began in law in the 1960s, when she became the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar. She served as counsel to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his Poor People’s Campaign. If King was alive today, he would want to reignite the campaign to focus on the needs of the poor, she said.

“The failure to act now will reverse the hard-earned racial and social progress that Dr. King died and sacrificed for,” Edelman said.

The juvenile justice system is in dire need of reform, especially in New York state where black youths are 32 times more likely than whites to be in custody, Edelman said.

Black boys born in 2001 have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison, and Latino boys have a 1 in 7 chance, Edelman said, quoting Justice Department data.

Those stark statistics illustrate a crisis for African-American and Latino communities, Edelman said. But those numbers also undermine the entire country, and add up to “a national catastrophe” that locks former inmates out of voting booths and jobs, she said.

Equal access to quality education is essential to leveling the playing field for children, Edelman said.

“The real civil rights front for the next decade is education,” she said. “And we need the best people to go into teaching. Children need positive people who believe in them.”

America has some of the worst world rates of teen pregnancy, child poverty and gun violence against children. Last year, more than 3,000 children died from gun violence.

“I often wonder where the anti-war movement to protect our children at home is,” Edelman said. 

Although some children live in desperate conditions, adults can raise their voices to advocate for children, Edelman said. She urged those in attendance to call for the closure of the state’s juvenile jails, and to hold politicians accountable for funding children’s needs.

“They all kiss babies, but when they get in these rooms and do their budgets, babies get lost,” she said. “Our failure to invest in all of our children before they get sick, drop out of school, and get into trouble is morally indefensible.”

Responsibility of the government

I am 66 years old, and as a child I would also have been in major trouble for failing to do my part. It may be true that the government can't raise the children, but the government consistently has made decisions about discipline. Children are allowed to report a parent that swats the bottom. A child who is angry with their parents can potentially get their parents into big trouble. My own children were informed that were they to report me, they would be leaving the home with the person who arrived for the investigation, because I would not be supporting individuals who didn't follow household rules. They were welcome to seek a better environment. Wisely they decided they were in a fine place.

The government at both state and local levels makes laws that impact a school's ability to educate. Many of the unfunded mandates change with each political election. The education system cannot keep pace with the constant and often inappropriate demands. A case in point: I work in what tends to be a successful school district. Five years ago about 30 special needs students in a lower grade failed to meet the state's growth target. Every grade surrounding this population for the past five years has had its entire process turned upside down with ongoing testing and proof of ability to teach, when the proof was already documented. Until there is 3 straight years of this "special needs" population's growth at the desired level, the other classes and surrounding grades are mired in this quicksand. It was much more logical to focus some effort on the population that wasn't where the state wanted them to be, and let the other students continue in their successful ways.

What is down when there is no money to implement the required programs? Some have a chance and others fall further behind. Targets are based upon wishes rather than appropriate goals and objectives. Too often the lawmakers have no idea the catastrophic downfall that results from their laws. Failure in school almost certainly leads to involvement with the justice system.

Poverty and limited progress often go together. Perception of who is worthy versus who needs an IEP or another chance varies from community to community. Underestimating value of children across communities often results in limited support and help for children who need support the most. Children who are not encouraged to dream fall prey to all the negative influences that surround them. Punishments for offenses tend to be swift, more harsh, and with less understanding than in more affluent neighborhoods. Our kids have oppositional disabilities and developmental disabilities. Other children, with the same behaviors, are branded as bad and incorrigible.

If we can predict how many prisons will be needed based upon 3rd and 4th grade illiteracy rates, surely we use the same data to provide the educators needed to work on the problem. It is much less expensive to the nation to educate than incarcerate. I think that has been a very compelling expectation by Mrs. Edelman over the years.

Isn't this the 21st Century

You stated "The juvenile justice system is in dire need of reform, especially in New York state where black youths are 32 times more likely than whites to be in custody, Edelman said." This is true note from a "RACE" standpoint but a codeling standpoint. I am 55 years of age, and If I had done 1/4 of the things the young of today are slapped on the wrist for my parents would have lowered the "BOOM" on me. People it in NOT up to our government to instill values and teach right from wrong to children. It is the job of the parents. Our government should not be looked to for a fix all savior it is the job of parents to raise the child correctly!


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