It is indeed an honor to be here on this great day. Thank you to Sylvia Coleman and the entire Owensboro Human Relations Commission for your long standing commitment to human rights in Owensboro.
When Sylvia contacted me about serving as the speaker today it was the end of 2015, a year much like 1968, that saw humanity reach a new low in suffering, intolerance, and violence. Human rights, it seems, took a step backwards after some years of progress or at least the illusion of progress. My mind began spinning as I thought about what I might say to you all today on the heels of a year when abuses to basic human rights come at every turn by both the strong and weak, powerful and oppressed. Unfortunately we have seen the triumph of fear, hate and ignorance reach a zenith in 2015.
I could talk about terrorism, mass shootings, racial strife, and the senseless gun violence impacting our cities large and small. Unfortunately Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, and Eric Garner have become household names.
I could talk about refugees and immigrants. This subject is personal to me. I am only a third generation immigrant to this country. The school system that I serve has the responsibility of educating numerous immigrant groups that seeking hope and refuge. I have seen and experienced first hand both compassion and ugliness directed at refugees in our city. It is a challenge to serve the refugee students because of language barriers and a scarcity of resources for English language learners. I am proud to represent a school district that opens its arms to such students. We need to do a better job in many areas of educating them, but what I see daily runs counter to the hateful rhetoric of our state and national politicians. I see pure love in the faces of these students and those who serve them in our schools. Nurses that provide care and go the extra mile to see that they have what they need. I have seen family advocates stand up to landlords that allow children to live in homes where they are threatened by lead poisoning. I have seen teachers and coaches not only give our refugee students a ride home, but routinely stop and feed them first. The actions that I see all around our community in welcoming immigrants to Owensboro defeat the war of words and rhetoric of our state and national leadership.
I could talk about religion. It is inconceivable to think that the idea of banning an entire religious group entered the mainstream public sphere in 2015. This idea is often counterbalanced with the inconsistent attitude of many ultra-religious Christians carrying a cross of bigotry rather than love and forgiveness. It is disgusting that in 2015 more than three dozen religiously affiliated institutions of higher education have asked the federal government to waive Title IX provisions of sexual equality so they do not have to offer such protections to LGBT students. But many of the actions I see in my community, at Owensboro High School where my children attend, runs counter to this hate. I see acceptance, toleration and a celebration of the diversity of religions as well as the LGBT students among them. I applaud and support the efforts of this commission to bring a fairness ordinance to Owensboro.
But the main issue that I want to address and our theme on this Martin Luther King Day 2016 is the unfinished business of Dr. King in advocating for economic justice through his “Poor People’s Campaign.” He was hard at work organizing this campaign in the weeks leading up to his assassination. Still today, 50 years later, this is the most compelling issue of our time-- one that is widely intertwined with all of the other issues I just discussed.
In Dr. King’s day, President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty. Fifty-one years later we now wage a War on the Poor where where 51 percent of our public school students nationally live in poverty. In the Owensboro Public Schools is it far worse than the national rate. Nearly 80 percent of our students live in conditions with few educational resources in their homes. Only one-third of the students that start kindergarten with us are ready to learn. Their parents face unemployment, underemployment, food insecurity, lack of stable housing and many other obstacles that seriously undermine children’s opportunity to learn.
Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, called America’s poet laureate of civil society, published a compelling and disturbing book last year that should serve as a rally cry for human relations commissions nationwide. The book, Our Kids, through a series of interviews, profiles, and family portraits of today’s kids, backed up by data, shows that we are dividing into two very different Americas. As a society we are sorting ourselves by income, by family structure and parenting styles, and by the kinds of communities in which we live. Class-based residential segregation is increasing.
We used to be able to confidently say that a child born in America had many advantages to children born elsewhere. But those advantages are far more dependent on family background in the US than we might wish. It’s not only that some kids are rich and others are poor. It's also that some have educated parents, including both a mother and a father in the home, who possess the social capital as well as the resources of time and money to ensure that their children are prepared for school by the time they reach age four or five. At the other end of the spectrum is a group of children whose early home life, or lack thereof, makes it far more difficult for them to succeed in school. These are the kids whose fathers may be incarcerated, whose mothers may be working long hours at low wage jobs, who live in troubled neighborhoods with little to occupy them in their free time, and whose parents lack the connections and knowledge needed to put them on a path to the middle class. These gaps between rich and poor, between the privileged and disadvantaged, are growing, suggesting that whatever degree of social mobility has existed in the US in the past may now be threatened. Such growing gaps have profound implications for educators and for the idea that schools can compensate for what children do not receive at home or in their communities.
At OPS we have long had a sense that we should not discuss or make a big deal out of the differences between kids based on the neighborhood where they reside. We serve them all, love them all, and have high expectations of all. There is enormous truth to that notion. And we take pride in serving all of the students in our system. We have a lot of work to do to improve, especially as it relates to achievement gaps, but I would match our urban school system against any in the country.
But the reality, according to Putnam, is the gap that exists between these students is created more by what happens outside of school and by what kids bring (or don't bring) with them to school...than by what schools do to them. His case studies, comparing students of the last 30 to 40 years to students today, show that these gaps are becoming wider and much more difficult to bridge. Rather than achievement gaps, we are creating opportunity gaps. For that reason I break the longstanding OPS tradition of not talking about the differences in our students. I cannot ignore the obscene levels of child poverty and not talk about it. By ignoring it, I would admit to you that we have all the tools at our disposal to solve the problem and make it better. The truth is we do not. Schools cannot be and ought not be the primary anti-poverty program for our nation, our state or our community. The growing inequality in our nation is hurting upward mobility. We will bear the consequences if we do not act to deal with it as a community. We have watched massive cutbacks of programs to uplift poor families. We must act to save the American Dream of equal opportunity. It is a matter of justice!
Horace Mann said over a century ago that education was the great equalizer-- the data show that he was right. Just a few decades ago the gap between rich and poor finishing a college degree was 39 percentage points. In just a few years that gap has risen dramatically to over 50 percentage points. Today education is more like the great fortifier-- compounding advantages of class-- than the great equalizer. International rankings reflect this trend, while much attention is paid to where the US ranks relative to other developed nations in math and reading. You do not often hear that we rank second to last among high performing countries in economic equity, and support for families, and dead last in social stress measures such as death from violence, drug use and teenage births.
Despite these crippling trends and awesome challenges, we in the Owensboro Public Schools believe in Nelson Mandela's idea that “education in the most powerful weapon to change the world.” We focus on the whole child as a way of providing as much social capital as we can for students that come to us from disadvantaged situations. That is why we have built one of the best performing arts programs in the country, so that our students can have dance lessons, learn music and build confidence by being on stage at the Riverpark Center. That is also why every fifth through 12th grade student receives an Apple computer to join the 21st century world of technolgy. That is why we focus on early childhood education with our partnership with Head Start at Hager Preschool and have invested in a comprehensive family-based approaches to literacy with programs like Footsteps-2-Brilliance that provide thousands of books to students at home and in day care before they reach us in school. We run our food service program like an efficient business, which, along with support from the Federal government, enables us to provide free meals to all students in our school system. At the high school level we offer our students the option of completing high school with an associate degree through our early college academy.
After 20 years of their existence, Kentucky is finally entering the Charter School debate. While the research on charter schools is mixed at best, there are some great examples where charter school options can be beneficial for students in poverty, English language learners, and minority students.
For that reason, we offer school choice to OPS high school students through a charter-school like program in partnership with the Daviess County Public Schools called the Owensboro Innovation Academy.
I am a supporter of Charter schools with the proper oversight and involvement of local districts. OIA is such an example of school choice that can make a positive difference for students and the community. But charters are not a silver bullet. Especially when the effort is to sweep in and close a failing school in places like the west end of Louisville. Failed schools are typically a result of a failed neighborhood. You almost never have a failing school is a healthy neighborhood. As a state we need to be vigilant as charter schools enter our education system. Many for-profit ventures in places like Ohio and Florida are doing far more educational harm than good. Human Relations groups need to be aware that many charters are nothing more than efforts to bypass serving disadvantaged students and those with disabilities.
As a community, it is critical that we provide social services alongside this educational and social capital. We do this with a focus on student health, safety and nutrition. Our elementary schools have long been anchors of the neighborhoods they serve. The City of Owensboro has done a tremendous job in revitalizing neighborhoods through their Community Development program to provide high quality housing for students in our district. We still have work to do as a community, spearheaded by the Human Relations Commission, to make sure we continue to provide adequate housing and put an end to landlords that do not provide appropriate conditions that provide for the health and safety of their tenants. It is reprehensible that in 2015 we have property owners charging rent to hard working families while their children are suffering from lead poisoning, dealing with collapsing stairwells, and exposed electrical outlets. Where children in our school district live in such substandard housing yet being extorted by landlords for leases in excess of $900 per month. One mother actually voluntarily contacted social services to turn in her children so they did not have to live in such a dangerous and hazardous environment. That should NOT happen in Owensboro in 2016.
The expansion of health insurance has made a real difference for the students and families in my school district. We still have many needs, especially in the area of mental health. Recent cuts to child care benefits and the threat of ending Kentucky’s health care program by our new Governor would take us backward.
I applaud and repeat the words of our Judge Executive Al Mattingly in his State of the Country address calling attention to the need for better childcare and the lack of social mobility in Owensboro, particularly acute among minorities, immigrants and women. I am glad he raised the issue of an increase in the minimum wage to remain competitive with nearby cities.
There is a clear level of frustration and downright anger reverberating around our state and country. I recently met a young man at a Christmas program in one of our schools who lost his $22 an hour job. He used his savings to get a technical certificate at the community college, in the expectation that he would be able to do even better, only to find that he could not get a job in his trade. When he finally got a job in his trade, his wages were far below what he had expected. When he was promoted to a supervisor role, his pay barely went up at all. In larger numbers, Americans are finding that this is the only kind of economy open to them.
This is a very typical parent that I meet in our school system. Most have jobs and work hard. Many of them two jobs. Thirty years ago labor unions had the power to broker a fair wage for workers like this man. Such countervailing power, as economist John Kenneth Galbraith called it, has declined.
I am a strong supporter of free market economics, but my friends, we do not have free market economics any more. The bottom 90 percent of Americans--skilled laborers like the man I described, small business owners, working poor, entrepreneurs, student debtors, small investors, homeowners, white, black, Latino, men and women--are losing ground in large part because of upward predistribution embedded inside free market rules over which those at the top--the Wall Street crowd, top executives of large corporations and the politicians they control thanks to the Citizens United decision-- have the greatest influence. It is not right that Donald Trump can escape the debt of bankruptcy but working families cannot escape the debt of health care costs or student loans. Those of us small players need to work as allies to form a new countervailing power to influence change of our highly rigged plutocratic economic system.
This is what happened a century ago to usher in the greatest period of success in the US economy which created a strong and prosperous middle class through reforms from the New Deal to the GI Bill.
The narrative of the New Deal has been turned on its head when characters like Ebeneezer Scrooge and old man Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life have gone through revaluations as good honest, hard working men that disdain the “takers” like Bob Cratchit and George Bailey.
When policy is only in the interest of 10 percent, then the best strategy is to divide the remaining 90 percent on issues that relate to guns, religion, immigration, and sexual orientation
I am both optimistic and fearful for the youth that are coming through. Optimistic because they get it. They will lead us to a better place than the past few generations, including mine, are leading us. I am fearful because my generation and the generations before have left them with a nearly impossible task. Nobel laureate Salman Rushdie delivering the commencement address at Emory University in 2015 captured it this way.
“My generation have not made good use of our time on earth. It is right I think to apologize to you for the mess we are leaving. The whole ecological, fanatical, oligarchic mess in which one percent of our country gets everything while kids are being killed daily for the crime of being black, in which religious bigots in this country think Jesus wants them not to sell cupcakes to gay couples, while religious bigots elsewhere thinks their God approves of the sowing off the heads of innocent men. We thought of ourselves, my lot, as tolerant and progressive and we are leaving you and intolerant and retrogressive world.”
I have faith in the generation that I see today in our schools. I am confident that they will be able to turn our intolerance into compassion, our inequality into innovation and new ideas that will make a difference in realizing Dr. King’s dream of providing both work and income for those inevitably left behind by capitalism’s economic engine. This dream should not be to just to alleviate poverty, but to raise each American into the middle class.
People that work a full-time job deserve the right to earn a living wage! Government is not the enemy. We the people are the government. A government by the people, for the people.
I believe these ideas should come from the best that the right and left, Democrat and Republicans have to offer. Why can’t we have stronger family values with an enhanced social safety net? Only together will be be able to save the American dream of equal opportunity for ALL.
Mayor Ron Payne, in his State of the City address, declared that 2016 be the Year of the Child in Owensboro. The issues that I have outlined here today--issues of social and economic justice-- are, at their core-- children’s issues. Our recent history demonstrates that cities-- not Congress or state legislatures-- are the engines of progress in our nation. Mayor Payne certainly has demonstrated that to us with the progress of our great city over the past eight years. That is why we all need to support his efforts to promote causes that uplift the children of this community over the coming months. Today, I will go on record as the first to volunteer my services to that cause.Thank you again to the Human Relations Commission-- may your work be continually blessed by the example of Martin Luther King.