The first day of this month marked an important anniversary in our nation's struggle for civil rights. Rosa Parks was not the first African-American to resist bus segregation when she refused to give up her seat on Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala. But as secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Montgomery chapter, Parks was chosen for this act of defiance because she was thought to be the best candidate to see through a court challenge following her arrest.
Parks' arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Supreme Court declared bus segregation illegal one year later. Often overlooked is the price that Parks paid. Days after her arrest, she was fired from her job as a seamstress in a local department store. She relocated to Virginia two years later, largely because she was unable to find work.
The next generation of adults is growing up in a different world, in which segregation is outlawed; where there is a new emphasis on the value of diversity; and in which we are about to inaugurate our first African-American president for a second term.
Today's civil rights challenge comes not from how the law discriminates, but how we as a society fail to prepare all of our children for the challenges they will face as adults. Too many children of color from impoverished backgrounds are condemned to a future without opportunity due to substandard schooling.
In fourth grade, 84 percent of African-American students cannot read at grade level, and 83 percent are not at grade level in math. For eighth-graders, the numbers are even worse, with 86 percent behind in reading and 87 percent in math, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
A staggering 35 percent of the nation's African-American children attend one of America's 1,700 high schools in which less than 60 percent of freshmen graduate in four years, according to research from the Children's Defense Fund.
We are setting these children up to fail as adults. African-American males age 18 and over represent 5 percent of the population on college campuses and 36 percent of the total prison population, according to a study by the Council of the Great City Schools.
Educational inequality is particularly acute here in the District, which has a lower high school graduation rate than all 50 states. We have seen it all here, from segregated schools to a public school system that nearly collapsed.
The introduction of specially chartered public schools, which are funded by local taxpayer dollars but are not run by the traditional public school system, has made a difference. D.C.'s charter schools now enroll 43 percent of all District public school children.
The District's public charter high schools graduate 77 percent of their students on time, 21 percentage points higher than the school system, and many charters score far above the charter average.
But charter schools have had to struggle to find space. They have been in some instances forced to renovate abandoned public schools, office, retail and warehouse space at their own expense. Meanwhile, declining enrollment in the traditional system has the city shuttering dozens of school buildings, frequently leaving them derelict or selling them for condos. Charters have often struggled to persuade authorities just to let them lease or buy the facilities.
Now a new round of school closures has been proposed, with 20 school buildings on the block. The city envisages charters occupying just three -- and these are being selected by the city with the requirement that they partner with the traditional school system. At 43 percent of total public school enrollment, surely D.C.'s charters deserve a better deal.
Our mayor and our new council chairman recognize that school quality is the next front in our civil rights struggle. They must fully support the chartered public schools in D.C. that are providing that quality the District so desperately needs. As our students, families and the charter school community seek in so many ways to make their voices heard and understood -- just as leaders like Rosa Parks did -- their government should treat them fairly and with respect.
Dr. Ramona Edelin is executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools.