06/11/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is Education a Civil Right?

I recently watched Al Sharpton on the Stephen Colbert show talk about how education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. He discussed his collaboration with Newt Gingrich to promote education reforms. Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich? That's an interesting coupling.

And I thought of all the interesting volunteers who come together at School on Wheels to tutor a homeless child. Why do they do this? For some it's because they recognize the vulnerability and difficulty of being a homeless student. For others, it's the opportunity to give back to those they consider less fortunate. For most, however, it's the understanding that education is the one sure path out of poverty and the cycle of homelessness. In Los Angeles County, we have a 60% graduation rate, well below the national average of 70%. And not only is the poverty rate in L.A. County higher than the nation as a whole, but we are the homeless capital of the nation.

Homelessness is extreme poverty. A serious illness or the loss of a job can leave anyone in extreme poverty. And when kids become homeless, their education suffers immensely.
  • More than 20% of homeless children do not attend school.
  • Homeless children are -- on average -- four grade levels below their housed peers.
  • Homeless children are nine times more likely to drop out of school altogether.
  • According to the United Way of Greater Los Angeles:

    - Individuals with a high school diploma earn on average $8,500 a year more than those who didn't graduate from high school.
    - Those with a bachelors degree earn almost twice the amount that high school graduates earn.
    - Those with a professional (post-bachelors) degree earn on average $52,136 a year more a year than those without a high school diploma.

    In 2009, Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education said,

    "Education is the most pressing issue facing America. Preparing young people for success in life is not just a moral obligation of society but also an economic imperative. Education is the only sure path out of poverty and the only way to achieve a more equal and just society."

    Al Sharpton and Arne Duncan both got it right: Educating young people is not only a civil rights issue, it's an economic imperative. This is especially true for homeless students if they are to break the cycle of extreme poverty and know that their lives can improve through education.