The origins of the phrase, “Education is the civil rights issue of our generation”


by David Safier

I've been researching the phrase, "Education is the civil rights issue of our generation" for a column I'm writing for the Tucson Weekly. I traced the concept back to the early days of the school voucher movement in the 1950s, followed it as it was used to embrace charter schools and vouchers in the 1990s and watched it become a buzz-term for the whole conservative "education/privatization/corporate reform" movement in the past few decades. Today it's a regular part of conservative phraseology. It has been used frequently by at least one (former) president and is, regrettably, on the lips of our current U.S. Secretary of Education.

The people and groups promoting this seemingly pro-civil rights phrase are often ambivalent about civil rights legislation and downright hostile to government programs that help minorities and the poor. The purpose of the phrase is to focus the civil rights struggle inside the school and remove it from the rest of society. "We've solved all the other civil rights problems," the phrase implies. All that's left to do is to push "school choice," meaning vouchers and charter schools, and we will have achieved Martin Luther King's dream of a just and equal society.

The most important word in the phrase, "Education is the civil rights issue of our generation," is the tiny word, "the." That one word transforms the phrase from a reasonable statement — that education is part of the larger push for greater civil rights — into a pronouncement that education is the one and only civil rights issue left to be addressed. Watch what happens when the word "the" is replaced by "one of the": "Education is one of the civil rights issues of our generation." The meaning changes significantly. The revised phrase maintains that education is one of a list of civil rights issues needing to be addressed in the country, a list that can include blatant and subtle racial/ethnic discrimination, LGBT rights, immigration reform issues, inequitable salaries for women and voter suppression. But if education is "the civil rights issue of our generation," we can ignore all the others. That's why the phrase is such an effective conservative weapon; it informs us that all our civil rights problems have been taken care of — except, of course, for education — and we don't need any more of that meddlesome, unnecessary, expensive government intrusion.

Conservative economist Milton Friedman began advocating for school vouchers in the 1950s as part of his free-market philosophy. When the Supreme Court handed down its Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which stated that "separate but equal is inherently unequal," Friedman saw that decision as an opportunity to promote vouchers as a way to give previously segregated students more opportunities to enroll in a variety of schools.

Like so many conservatives, especially those who lean libertarian, Friedman didn't let reality get in the way of a perfectly good theory. After the Brown v. Board of Education decision, legislatures in many southern states created government funded "tuition grants" — vouchers — for children of white families to attend segregation academies so they didn't have to sit next to African American children. Friedman was against the tuition grants, but he couldn't be bothered with the concern that vouchers can be used as an effective tool against integration.

Though Friedman used the civil rights issue to promote his voucher agenda, he was at best ambivalent about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many conservatives who support the "education reform" agenda share his ambivalence and are openly hostile to social and economic government programs that benefit minorities. But they understand that one of the best ways to promote vouchers is to convince people in minority communities where parents are upset with the quality of their schools that vouchers will give them better educational opportunities.

In 1996, a conservative journal published the article, Free at Last: Black America Signs up for School Choice, discussing both vouchers and charter schools. The title's use of the phrase "Free at Last" effectively and inaccurately links Martin Luther King to the voucher/charter school agenda. In the article, Dan McGroaty, a speech writer for the first President Bush, is quoted talking about the use of civil rights rhetoric rather than conservative/libertarian talking points to promote the Milwaukee voucher program which began in the early 1990s.

“From the start, the Milwaukee proponents’ language was appropriated from the civi-rights movement. Their rhetoric was more redolent of Martin Luther King Jr, than the free-market pronouncements favored by conservative voucher proponents."

The article's final paragraph begins with the phrase, "School choice is the civil-rights movement of the 1990s."

In 1998, Frank Luntz, the wordsmith who has developed so many key phrases for conservatives, maintained that the word "voucher" has too many negative connotations. Conservatives should speak instead of "opportunity scholarships," Luntz said, and call this "the civil rights issue of our generation."

Forty years after Milton Friedman linked vouchers to school integration, his idea was encapsulated in the nearly perfect phrase, "Education is the civil rights issue of our generation."

In 2000, a book was published with the title, Not Yet Free At Last: The unfinished business of the civil rights movement, Our battle for school choice. The title combines an embrace of Martin Luther King — the phrase, "Free at last" — with the idea that school choice is "the unfinished business" — not one of the unfinished pieces of business, but the one and only piece of unfinished business — of the civil rights movement.

In 2002, President Bush, pushing his No Child Left Behind agenda, adopted the phrase in a radio address:

"Americans can proudly say that we have overcome the  institutionalized bigotry that Dr. King fought. Now our challenge is to make sure that every child has a fair chance to succeed in life. That is why education is the great civil rights issue of our time."

In the language of Bush's speech writers, the civil rights movement's "We shall overcome" is transformed to "We have overcome." According to the passage, the battle is over everywhere but in our schools and "That is why education is the great civil rights issue of our time."

In 2004, Rod Paige, Bush's Secretary of Education, declared in a speech commemorating the 50 year anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, that the achievement gap "is the civil rights issue of our time." The achievement gap, of course, is the problem No Child Left Behind was supposed to fix, though a decade later, the fix shows no signs of taking hold.

In 2008, Arne Duncan, who had just been nominated to be Obama's Secretary of Education, said,

"Whether it’s fighting poverty, strengthening the economy or promoting opportunity, education is the common thread. It is the civil rights issue of our generation and it is the one sure path to a more equal, fair and just society."

Unfortunately, Duncan didn't naively adopt the favorite phrase of the conservative "education reform" movement because he liked the way it sounded. The sad fact is, Duncan internalized the conservative agenda along with the phrase.

Duncan used the phrase again in 2011 in a Martin Luther King Day address:

“I’m just convinced education is the civil rights issue of our generation and we have a lot of hard work ahead of us. If we want our young people to have a chance to enter the mainstream of society and pursue the American dream, they can only do that through education."

Later in the address, Duncan comes close to advocating for weaker teachers unions, streamlined school administrations and more compliant school boards, all favored conservative agendas. It's distressing that the education spokesman for the first African American president has adopted the language of the same conservative movement that created the Southern Strategy as a way to appeal to southern bigotry after LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act. Equally distressing is the fact that their beloved vouchers and charters, embraced in part or in whole by Duncan, are increasing, not decreasing, the amount of segregation in today's schools.


  1. Yes! Finally something we can agree on. Worshipping at the altar of high stakes standardized testing is stunting our kids’ education and has been going on for far too long. More of the same is not acceptable.

  2. Nice work. Reminds me of Michelle Alexander’s research into the “war on crime/drugs.” Of course the communities most impacted want better conditions. But sometimes people are convinced to get behind initiatives that seem like good solutions, but end up hurting the community.

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