House Majority Leader Eric Cantor delivered a major policy speech about expanding school choice and education opportunity for all American parents and students at Freire Charter School in Philadelphia, PA.
Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:
“Today, I look around this gymnasium and I see students who probably think the homework will never end, and are most likely happy for this event, merely to take a break from classes. I know all of you are working hard because you appreciate how important education is to your future. I see teachers and administrators who only sleep well at night when they feel they’ve done everything they can for the children they are charged with protecting and educating.
“And I see supportive parents and family members who devote hours of their day helping and encouraging their kids. It's an amazing thing to behold.
“In places like this all over the country- at schools like the Freire School - everyone knows there is nothing more important than raising well-educated children. Your hard work and dedication is making a difference. It is providing the opportunity for a quality education, which is the key to paving the way to a brighter future for our kids. And the model of education opportunity here at Freire is what I'd like to talk to you about today.
“As many of you already know, the namesake of this school, Paulo Freire, was a brilliant educator. Freire was born into poverty in 1921 in Brazil. By the age of 10, the Great Depression was in full swing in Brazil, and his family suffered. Two years later, his father passed away and his mother was left to raise him alone.
“As a member of the underclass in his country, Paulo Freire was not afforded the same education opportunities as the wealthier children in Brazil. As a result, he fell four grades behind in school. Freire said: “I wasn't dumb. It wasn't lack of interest on my part. My social condition didn't allow me to have an education.”
“Eventually things improved for his family, and Paulo Freire worked hard. He earned a law degree and achieved a great deal. But his story and his struggle remain all too familiar to many American families as we approach what would have been his 100th birthday.
“Like Paulo Freire in Brazil, children in America born into poverty often find themselves trapped in failing schools. And many have no way out. The truth is, millions of low-income kids in our country are being denied the education opportunities afforded to wealthier children.
“The lack of education opportunities cause too many American kids to drop out of school. Most remain in poverty. Others choose a life of crime and some end up in jail. This is the greatest civil rights challenge of our time, and it is up to us to solve it.
“For too long, the federal government has tried to respond to this problem by spending more money, demanding more control from Washington. Since the mid-1960’s, the federal government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on improving schools in low-income areas with little to no effect. Student achievement is not improving and too many parents and children are left helpless.
“Today in America, nearly a quarter of public school students do not graduate high school. In our largest cities, only half of public high school students graduate on time. And our test rates still lag behind most of the industrialized world. This is simply unacceptable.
“The time has come for a serious commitment to education reform in America. Parents, communities, and states must be given the chance to chart a better course and finally solve the problems that Washington has failed to solve.
“Since the 1990’s, states like Pennsylvania, through their charter school laws and the establishment of schools like this one, have begun to offer solutions to this problem.
“This school provides a safe environment for students to learn, and has frankly given parents hope. Just today, I had an opportunity to tour this magnificent school and meet two of those parents - James and Crystal Jones and their son Elijah, who is a student here at Freire.
“Two years ago, Elijah was a student at another school and James and Crystal were worried that he just wasn't getting the help and education he deserved. Elijah has a speech impediment and needs a supportive environment and access to a strong speech therapist. James and Crystal told me that since coming to Freire, Elijah enjoys encouragement without being provided a crutch. Elijah’s acceptance here at Freire is an opportunity that could change his life.
“James and Crystal want to see their son have a chance to succeed, and the Freire School is giving him that chance.
“Elijah, I am really excited about your future. Mr. and Mrs. Jones, you are two courageous role models for your son and I thank you for being here today.
“It’s important for us to remember Elijah’s story and the stories so many of you could tell about how this school has made a difference in your lives. Because, in too many cities and towns across America, children – especially those living in poverty – don’t have the opportunity to attend a school like this. And in too many cases their hopes for a brighter future are already dimming.
“Believe it or not, there are powerful forces propping up the status quo and thereby denying these kids an opportunity like you have.
“As a parent, I often wonder who would ever want to prevent parents from having more options for their kids. Who would want to keep kids in schools that may be violent or unsafe? Sadly enough, in some cases, it’s our very own federal government.
“Like Pennsylvania, the state of Louisiana took advantage of the charter school movement nearly 20 years ago and adopted a charter school law, giving parents the option to send their kids to a charter school. After Bobby Jindal was elected Governor of Louisiana in 2007, he championed an education scholarship program that added private schools to the list of options for parents and kids in low-income families.
“The Louisiana Scholarship Program provides vouchers for parents in low-income families to be used to pay for their kids’ tuition at a private school. In order to be eligible for these scholarships, families have to meet certain income requirements significantly below the poverty level and their kids have to be attending one of the state’s failing schools. For thousands of students in Louisiana, this new program provides a real lifeline. It provides a way out of a failing school and a way into a brighter future.
“Just last month, the Department of Justice sued the State of Louisiana over this scholarship program. The lawsuit would prevent vouchers from being distributed in school districts still operating under federal desegregation orders. The Department of Justice claims that the scholarship program has, and will continue to, impede the progress made with desegregating the public school system.
“This argument is frankly absurd. The truth is - an overwhelming majority of the students who receive the scholarships and benefit from this program are minority children from low-income families. As participants in the scholarship program, these students attend better schools and demonstrate real progress. Why would the Justice Department want to stop these kids from realizing this kind of opportunity?
“Just like the charter school program in this state and in this city, scholarship programs like the one in Louisiana are aimed at furthering equality for all kids – rich or poor, black or white. The civil rights laws of this country were enacted to ensure equal access to education and opportunity – exactly what the Louisiana Scholarship Program is doing. The program is the very opposite of a civil rights violation. It is a civil rights solution.
“The scholarship program in Louisiana challenges the status quo and provides hope to kids and their parents, but the government in Washington is trying to stand in the way.
“Earlier this year, I went to New Orleans so I could see for myself the successes of this program. There, I met Essence Jackson. Like most parents, Essence sent her daughter, Ma’loni, to her local public school. Essence was told by her daughter’s teacher that Ma’loni was too bright and needed a different environment in order to achieve her potential in the classroom.
“The teacher then told Essence about the Louisiana Scholarship Program and encouraged her to apply.
“Ma'loni was accepted into the program and enrolled in a new school. After seeing her daughter thrive in her new learning environment, Essence told me that she would do whatever she could— that she’d work three jobs – simply to keep Ma’loni in the new school.
“I wonder if the Department of Justice has its way, what will happen to Ma’loni and Essence? Will Essence be forced to work three jobs just to keep her daughter in her school? Or will Ma’loni be forced to go back to the school that failed her? Is this the consequence our Justice Department seeks?
“Halting the Louisiana education opportunity program would trap low-income minority kids in failing schools. This is nothing but Washington standing in the schoolhouse door. It must stop. I call on United States Attorney General Eric Holder to withdraw his lawsuit immediately. Low-income and minority students across Louisiana should not be denied the education opportunity they deserve.
“If the Attorney General does not withdraw this suit, then the United States House will act. We will leave no stone unturned in holding him accountable for this decision. The Attorney General will have to explain to the American people why he believes poor minority children in Louisiana should be held back, and why these children shouldn’t have the same opportunity that the children from wealthier and more connected families.
“Sadly, the Attorney General is not the only opponent to expanding education opportunity through school choice. Opponents to this type of education reform include teacher's unions and associations in many states. They see it as a threat to the current system, the only system they know. Let me be clear: school choice is NOT an attack or an indictment on teachers or public schools.
“My three children attended and graduated from public schools in Virginia. They had excellent teachers and the schools they attended had caring administrators - all of whom prepared my kids for the next step in their education. The truth is, a little more than 10 miles away, in the same county and in the neighboring city, poor children are heading to school each morning in drastically different circumstances.
“In Virginia, we don’t have teachers unions, but there is still a strong attachment to the status quo, where in most cases the schools kids attend are based on their address or zip code, and school boundaries are nearly untouchable.
“The truth is, America's student population is becoming more diverse, and its needs more varied. Why shouldn't our schools be allowed to specialize their focus and their means of instruction? Why shouldn't we allow students the opportunity to attend a school that meets their needs, regardless of where they live?
“In the end, I know that opponents of school choice and those who stand in the way will ultimately fail – and that fact strengthens my faith. Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and dreamed of an end to segregation. He knew this dream would be a reality because, as he often said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Education opportunity is justice for those children trapped in failing schools. And the arc is bending.
“Back then school choice was a dream. Just thirty years ago, school choice was open only to families who could afford to buy a nice house in an affluent area, or those who could pay to send their kids to private schools. Charter schools and private school scholarships were virtually non-existent. Today, over two million students take advantage of public charter schools like Freire. Another 225,000 students use vouchers or tax-credit scholarships to attend private schools of their families’ choosing. Times are changing.
“These new options are creating real results for our children. A recent study showed that in Washington, DC, where there is a robust charter school system, charter students gained the equivalent to an extra 72 days in reading and 101 days in math instruction over the course of a year compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools.
“While education opportunity has been expanding throughout the states, school choice has also been gaining traction at the federal level. Thirteen years ago when Congress last considered a major education authorization bill, there were few provisions related to education opportunity through school choice.
“Earlier this year, when the House considered the Student Success Act, I offered an amendment that allows parents to take Title 1 funds and use them to attend a public school of their choice, including charter schools. My amendment and this legislation passed the House. The next time Congress considers a major education reauthorization, I believe we will adopt full school choice.
“So today, for the first time, I would like to make a prediction. Because the arc of moral history bends towards justice, because education opportunity is growing throughout the country, because there is no good argument for denying parents the best possible education for their child, and because of the successes I see in this room at this school, within 10 years, education opportunity and school choice will be a reality for every student in America.
“Paulo Freire believed that everyone should have the necessary tools to succeed and he dedicated his life to providing those tools to the underserved. And he did this because he knew; he knew what it was like to be denied access to learning; and he knew what it was like to go to bed hungry - hungry for food, and also hungry for knowledge. He dedicated his life to that end and we must dedicate ours.
“We must not stop there. We must build a movement. We will only prevail - our nation’s children will only prevail - if we get others to join us and spread the word. Together, we must challenge the status quo. The tools are there. We must issue a call to action on behalf of America's kids. Let’s start now. When you go home this afternoon call, e-mail, tweet, Facebook and share what we are talking about here today. Inequality is the problem, and education opportunity is the answer.
“I would like to thank the parents, teachers, and staff of the Freire School for having me here today. But most of all I would like to thank you, the students. Do not let obstacles stand in the way of your goals. If you work hard, you can choose the direction of your desire and live the American Dream. I know you will. I wish you all the best. Thank you all very much.”