As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan rallies the nation to support an overhaul of public education, he often tells the story of North Lawndale, an impoverished community on Chicago's West Side. So dire were the circumstances in this predominantly black neighborhood that four decades ago, Martin Luther King Jr. singled it out for a much-publicized visit in the hopes that the community would become an emblem for the civil rights movement in the North.
According to Duncan, more than a billion dollars for antipoverty and community-development programs flowed into North Lawndale in the years following King's visit. Yet, by the time Duncan was named CEO of the Chicago Public Schools in 2001, about 97 percent of the children in the North Lawndale schools were still poor. Why? Because very little of the money was spent on improving the quality of education. "No one touched the schools," Duncan says.
As just about everyone knows by now, Duncan is touching the nation's schools with $100 billion in economic-stimulus funds designated by President Obama for public education reform. Recession-ravaged school districts have already received large sums to save or create teaching jobs, and big chunks of cash are in the pipeline, with the entire $100 billion slated for allocation over the course of just two years. Not surprisingly, the debate about how to spend the remaining billions is heating up.
We asked Thomas Payzant, a former Clinton-era undersecretary of education and onetime superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, to weigh in with his ideas about how we can use the windfall to bring authentic and lasting change to our schools. His eloquent call for far-reaching and sustainable reform includes proposals that may surprise you.
Payzant may ruffle some feathers, but we agree that a bold commitment to radical change is the only effective antidote to the legacy of futility clinging to communities such as North Lawndale. Nothing less will dispatch the mediocrity and despair hobbling so many schools in nearly every state.
To broaden the discourse, and to add contrasting voices to the mix, we asked some of our nation's most accomplished and provocative education-reform advocates to tell us their top priorities for the stimulus money. This diverse conclave of thinkers includes author and scholar Jonathan Kozol, former secretary of labor Robert Reich, New York University professor Diane Ravitch, educator and author Rafe Esquith, District of Columbia Public School chancellor Michelle Rhee, and Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp.
Both Barack Obama and Arne Duncan have called the reform of public education the civil rights challenge of our era, the "one sure path to a more equal, fair, and just society," as Duncan describes it. They point to the challenge of better educating our young people as the key to regaining America's global economic leadership. They know, too, that since the days of the Civil War, it has been our ability to meet challenges of this magnitude that has helped define our society.
I certainly like our chances this time around, and along with the Edutopia team, I relish the opportunity to bring you this great story as it unfolds. We will continue to share it with you, not only in the pages of Edutopia magazine but also at Edutopia.org, where we invite you to participate actively in the continuing conversation -- with us and with one another.
One last note: Five years ago this month, Edutopia magazine was born with the stirring promise to fly above the bureaucracy and politics of public education as usual to illuminate a brave new world of teaching and learning. As Milton Chen, executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation, and former editorial director James Daly wrote at the time, "Students and teachers are at the beginning of a learning revolution as fundamentally important as the founding of our public education system more than two centuries ago."
Five years and 34 issues later, the revolution is in full swing. It has been our privilege to cover it in both these pages and on Edutopia.org. Change in education is now an unstoppable force.
Thank you, the hundreds of thousands of educational change agents who read Edutopia, for your support. We look forward to many more anniversaries and lots more breakthrough progress to report in the years to come.