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May 21, 2013

Wade Henderson, President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, was recently honored by the Education Law Center with the Education Justice Award for national leadership in educational equity. Before receiving the award at a special reception, Mr. Henderson delivered ELC's annual Education Justice Lecture at Rutgers University's Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

This renowned civil rights leader declared organizing, writ large, as the key to moving toward equity in education. He urged his listeners to join together and act in the interests of equal opportunity. Now is the time to "seize the moment," he declared.

The need is urgent, Mr. Henderson added, because young people without a high school diploma are doomed to a life of poverty. He said the nation's structural inequalities create extreme barriers for black and brown kids trying to break out of poverty, and noted that in America jobs no longer exist for people who have not had an education.

Mr. Henderson touched on a range of education topics, from achievement gaps to the importance of preschool and the scourge of the "silent scandal" of many school districts' suspension and expulsion policies that feed "the prison-industrial complex." He noted that American schools are highly segregated by race and class, and bemoaned the fact that African Americans and Latinos are over-represented in the prison population and under-represented in higher education.

Mr. Henderson spoke about the Leadership Conference's many goals, including education equity and excellence, working with America's great diversity, and encouraging voting (If you don't vote, you don't count, he said.). The organization's current short-term goal is passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. We cannot have a strong nation when 11 million people are on the outside looking in, Mr. Henderson explained.

On a positive note, Mr. Henderson mentioned the federal Equity Commission Report, which concludes that resolving the substantial financial inequities in school systems is paramount. In fact, the Leadership Conference issued a Call to Action in response to the Equity Report, in "Reversing the Rising Tide of Inequality: Achieving Educational Equity for Each and Every Child."

Mr. Henderson reminded us of dramatic historical events that can inform current and future advocacy. In 1963, the "modern civil rights movement awakened this country’s slumber," he said. And, "America has come far but still has a long way to go," especially in the case of education—the engine for work and social mobility, he explained. We haven’t fully realized the promise of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. During the 60 years after the 1896 Plessy decision that said separate schools by race did not offend the U.S. Constitution, advocates developed and implemented long-term strategies that led to the 1954 victory in Brown. The advocates’ dream and goal was nothing less than full equality of opportunity in education.

However, during the next 60 years, from Brown to present, he said, we haven’t been able to implement the principle of Brown as we wanted. We have not fully realized its potential. Another U.S. Supreme Court opinion, in the 1973 Rodriguez v. San Antonio case, "undermined the main principle of Brown that every child is entitled to an excellent and equitable education," Henderson stated.

The Education Justice Lecture was a homecoming of sorts for Mr. Henderson, who studied under Arthur Kinoy at Rutgers Law School in Newark, graduating in 1973. There he also met Marilyn Morheuser, ELC's previous Executive Director, who was in his law school class. Eliciting pride in his audience, Mr. Henderson acknowledged that New Jersey is far ahead of most other states in establishing educational equity for students.

Education Justice Press Contact:
Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice
email: mhunter@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x19

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