Many civil rights activists are defining higher standards for all children as a top issue. Andrew Young, a former Democratic mayor of Atlanta and US ambassador to the United Nations, spoke with the Monitor on the stakes for poor children in the standards debate.
On poverty and public schools:
The challenge of America in the 21st century will be to end poverty. And you can't do that without a good education for everybody, and that means a first-rate system of public education.
On student activism and education as a civil right:
When I was younger, I recall closing down the school in Birmingham, Ala., to end segregation, and we [civil rights activists] did it successfully. I expect to see kids in these [failing] schools of 5,000 students start saying: We're not being educated. Let's close this school, go downtown, and protest until they figure out a way to give us a decent education. It will take kids who want to get an education and who realize that they're being neglected to end the stalemate in which we find ourselves.
Public schools can be much more concerned about building new buildings, about contracts and services, than they are about the quality of education for the children. Year after year in Atlanta, I'd see the more effective teachers taken away from the poor schools and put in the middle-class schools to keep the middle class in public schools.
I support what Gov. Jeb Bush (R) did in Florida: If a school is not performing two years in a row, children have an option to transfer to a school that is performing, be it public or private. I don't support vouchers across the board, but I do for people in the lower-income category and in nonperforming schools. We've got to require better teaching and better opportunities for poor people if we're to hope to wipe out poverty. Selective vouchers is the beginning of a radical reform of public education.
I have no doubt that public education is going to prevail in America, but it's going to take the challenge of competition. I use the illustration of IBM, which for years squelched every effort to make anything but a mainframe computer. They even got rid of people that wanted to vary the mainframe. But it wasn't until Apple and Wang and Dell and Compaq began making desktops and laptops and palmtops that IBM began getting its act together, and today they make the best laptop in the business.
On prospects for reform:
I'm encouraged, because the pot is boiling. There is going to be a real struggle around public education that is going to bring out the best in everyone.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society