In commemorating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., many people rightfully reflect on his untiring efforts to bring about racial equality and justice for blacks, particularly those living in the segregated South.
To be sure, without the work and sacrifice of Dr. King and countless others, it is doubtful Congress would have passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which broadly prohibits discrimination against racial minorities and others.
However, let us not forget that as Dr. King fought for racial equality, he also pursued economic justice and equal economic opportunities for everyone. Central to this pursuit is the provision of equal educational opportunities for all students, particularly those residing in low-income and rural communities.
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The fact that there are stark disparities between schools in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities and their more affluent counterparts has been well documented. Students attending high-poverty schools in which the vast majority of students receive free or reduced-price lunch face seemingly insurmountable challenges ranging from less qualified and less experienced teachers to fewer college preparatory courses. Such students also bring the psychological, emotional and physical hardships of living in poverty with them as they enter the schoolhouse doors, which can negatively impact their academic achievement.
Children living in low-income rural communities are particularly susceptible. Parents in rural communities often lack options for affordable high-quality child care, which is sorely needed considering that many parents work more than one job in an effort to provide for their families. Many rural families also lack access to income, information, resources and skills to provide their children with high-quality learning opportunities and experiences. As a result, many children are unprepared for kindergarten, struggle to succeed in later years and fall further behind during summer breaks.
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This is the disturbing reality for thousands of students in South Carolina’s rural schools. A recent report ranked South Carolina’s rural schools as the third most needy in the nation. It looked at factors such as student and family diversity, socioeconomic challenges and educational outcomes. In so doing, it highlighted not only the connections between race, unemployment and student achievement but also the difficulty of improving any education system, especially those in rural areas.
Obviously, a simple solution to the crisis in rural education in our state does not exist. Just as the problems are complex, so should be the solutions. At the S.C. Supreme Court’s direction, members of the General Assembly have actively considered reform measures to ensure that students receive the educational opportunities required by our state constitution. Granted, some measures, such as funds to repair deteriorating facilities and salary incentives to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers, may require more money. However, money alone will not fix all the problems.
In fact, the responsibility for remedying the problems does not rest simply upon the state. It is a shared responsibility between the state, which must provide equal educational opportunities, and the citizenry, who must take advantage of them.
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The ability to obtain an education is a precious gift and should be treated that way by parents and students. It should not be taken for granted or squandered. As parents and guardians, we must ask if we are doing everything we can to instill the value of education in our children both by our words and by our actions. We must set high expectations for our children and do all that we can to help them meet them. We must partner with schools and accept our responsibility of being our children’s first and primary educator.
As for the state, it must realize that providing effective education is not only the constitutional thing to do but also the just thing to do. As Dr. King recognized more than 50 years ago, racial equality is inextricably intertwined with economic equality, and educational equality serves as the foundation for both. So as we honor Dr. King on this day, let us honor education. For it is through education that his dream will be fully realized.
Dr. Nelson teaches education law policy and consumer law at USC’s School of Law; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.