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Why We Can't Wait to Close the School Achievement Gap

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In 1947, while still a student at Morehouse College, a young Martin Luther King Jr. opined on the role of education in society. Writing in The Maroon Tiger, the college newspaper, King stated that "education must enable a [man or woman] to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of [his or her] life ... the function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically."

At the time King wrote these words the doctrine of separate but equal, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, had been ensconced in the law for over 50 years. Black children were denied access to a quality education solely on the basis of race. Brown v. Board of Education, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, signaled an opportunity for African-Americans to reach new heights through an educational system that was equitable, fair, and provided the same opportunities at educational attainment as whites.

As we mark the federal holiday that celebrates the life and work and sacrifice of Dr. King, the words of a young transformative leader in the making have been muted. A growing achievement gap affecting students of color threatens our communities. Education Week describes the achievement gap as "the disparity in academic performance between African-American and Hispanic students, at the lower end of the performance scale, and their non-Hispanic white peers, and the similar academic disparity between students from low-income families and those who are better off." The achievement gap also focuses on the gaps that exist among students from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds including English Language Learners and students with special needs.

Fifty years after Brown, the achievement gap is widening. Though schools are not legally segregated, school performance is racially divided.

In California, 18 percent of high school students fail to graduate in four years. For African American students, the dropout rate is 30 percent, and for Latino students the dropout rate is 23 percent.

Separate is not equal.

The persistent segregation is occurring in an era in which a lack of education practically guarantees economic despair. The nationwide unemployment rate is now just under 7 percent. For those with master's degrees, the jobless rate is half that (3.5 percent), while for high school dropouts the unemployment rate is nearly double the overall rate (12.5 percent).

So how we do we move from peril to promise?

In California, the new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) ties funding to student achievement, a monumental cultural shift.

The recent regulations on the funding system passed by the California State Board of Education will provide parents and community with a greater say in how education dollars are spent and whether they are effectively serving students with the greatest needs -- low income, foster youth, and English language learners.

Further, ensuring access to quality early childhood education provides students with a foundation for later academic success and places them on the pathway to educational attainment. Studies have shown that the lack of an early childhood education resulted in a child being 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 40 percent more likely to become a teen parent, 60 percent more likely never to attend college, and 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

Finally, schools and children don't exist in a vacuum. We must intensify our efforts to improve the environments in which our children live -- providing access to healthcare, including mental health treatment and reducing violence in our communities and increasing parental involvement are just a few such ways.

In his landmark treatise "Why We Can't Wait," King attributed the waves of civil unrest across the nation to the "despair that followed the failure to bring Brown v. Board to Education to life."

We can't wait to uphold our promise that all children graduate from high school with the skills they need to be successful in college or compete in a 21st century technologically-driven economy.

Whatever gains we have made in social equity since King will surely be reversed unless we face this task with resolve, creativity, and collaboration. That is why we can't wait.

Mark Ridley-Thomas is a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.