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August 28, 2014, 5:15 pm

Public education: Our civil right

It’s time for the African-American community to organize and mobilize around public education.

In the wake of changes at the School District of Philadelphia and School Reform Commission, the African-American community cannot sit idly by hoping, praying and trusting that our elected officials, the School District and business leaders will act in our children’s best interest.

As I’ve said before, the changes at the School District are not about the actual education of our children, most of whom are Black. The real fracas is about who will control the School District’s nearly $3 billion budget. When you understand that Philadelphia's school budget is one the largest in the nation, then you will understand that the recent turmoil at the District is about financial resources — specifically, who controls them and who will benefit from them.

In a recent article, Helen Keller argued forcefully that “public schools are critical to Center City's growth.”

A few days later, former School Reform Commissioner Robert L. Archie gracefully resigned, and then Dr. Wendell Pritchett, Chancellor of Rutgers-Camden and a Center City resident, was appointed as Archie’s replacement on the SRC. And on Oct. 10, a national writer, University of Pennsylvania professor and Center City resident, Lorene Cary was appointed to the SRC.

Why is this significant?

It is clear that the Center City coalition is plotting and dictating how the School District will be run post Archie and former Superintendent Dr. Arlene Ackerman. While the recent appointments of Pritchett and the two “executive advisers,” Lori Shorr and Edward Williams, appear noble on the surface, we must dig deeper.

Who is representing the non-Center City interests? Who will fight to ensure the masses of children — the overwhelming majority of whom do not live in Center City — receive an adequate education? And who will ensure that all communities benefit from the District’s billion-dollar budget and not just those who are perceived as more politically valuable and/or as paying more taxes?

Certainly, these new political appointees will have their ears tuned to Center City residents, but we cannot leave it to chance that our interests will be equally heard. Access to an excellent public education is not a Center City right. It is our civil right!

“So, what’s next? We know what the problems are, but what am I, what are you, and what are we going to do about it?” These questions, posed by one of my mentors, have haunted me all week.

Like many of you, I am frustrated with the weekly changes at the school district. However, frustration alone will not advance our public education agenda — which is to ensure that all children, Black, white, rich and poor, have equal access to an excellent education. Action is what led to civil rights victories, and it is action that is needed for Philadelphia’s present civil rights battles.

Given our new and particular battle, we need to have the spirit of Oliver L. Brown. Fifty-seven years ago, Rev. Brown was a devoted working father, family man and an assistant pastor at his local church. He was a welder by trade, who simply wanted to provide the best life that he could for his family. However, he faced a problem: segregated schools.

Fed up with the educational inequity all Black children were subjected to in Topeka, Kansas, Reverend Brown, joined by many others, filed suit against the School Board of Topeka. It became the landmark case known as Brown vs. Board of Education.

Today, receiving a quality education for students in the City of Philadelphia is even more critical than it was in 1954. I recognize that we are confronted by an onslaught of political and social problems, not the least of which is the need for quality education for our children.

But I also recognize that the select few are thriving while the poor and disappearing middle class bear the social, economic and political brunt of the ills plaguing our city.

A strong education, for those who are fortunate enough to receive it, remains the great equalizer.

It’s time for concerned citizens of and for the African-American community to organize and mobilize around education. If Center City and other communities are fighting for their children and securing appointments to ensure their interests are met, then the African-American community must be equally (if not more) vigilant.

Hence, on Oct. 30 at 1:30 pm, there will be an organizational meeting for “Imagine Philly Children” at Bright Hope Baptist Church. We are inviting all concerned citizens of Philadelphia, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or class, to attend.

Horace Mann, one of the great advocates of public education, said: “Let us not be content to wait and see what will happen, but [rather] give us the determination to make the right things happen.”

Beloved, it’s time, in fact, past time for our community to organize and mobilize for our children’s civil right to receive a quality public education.

As always, keep the faith!


The Rev. Kevin R. Johnson is senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, located at 1601 N. 12th St. at Cecil B. Moore Avenue in North Philadelphia. For information, visit or