Strategy Two decades of presidents have called America's schools a 'civil rights issue' — here's why that's troubling

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Trump, Obama, and Bush have all called education "the civil rights issue of our time."

Trump, Obama, and Bush have all called education "the civil rights issue of our time." play

Trump, Obama, and Bush have all called education "the civil rights issue of our time."

(Thomson Reuters)

In a speech addressing Congress in February, President Donald Trump called education the "civil rights issue of our time." He's not the first to assert such a claim.

President George W. Bush used the same language in 2002, President Barack Obama did so in 2011, and many other politicians have used similar language over the past roughly two decades.

So why has this refrain come up so often from politicians from both sides of the aisle?

Politicians and education reformers alike are attracted to the phrase because aligning education with civil rights makes the issue more relevant for the current generation, according to Gerard Robinson, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

"The impetus behind calling education the 'civil right issue of our time' is understandable," he wrote in a US News article. "For one thing, the phrase links this generation to a worthy cause for which previous generations fought and died," he continued.

But the reason may also be, in part, a strategic move for politicians.

"Every era articulates an 'our time' moment in American education," Robinson told Business Insider. "Politically, draping education in the civil rights of 'our time' moniker has bipartisan appeal, be it a Topeka, Kansas worldview for some democrats, or a Milwaukee, Wisconsin worldview for some republicans," Robinson continued.

The phrase also has deep historical roots, according to Leah Gordon, a professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education.

"In some cases, framing education as a civil rights goal was productive for directing resources to low income, as well as minority, students,” Gordon told Business Insider. "Since Brown v. Board of Education — which defined equal educational opportunity as a right — there is a long history of civil rights activists placing demands for desegregated and equally, or at least adequately, funded schools as one among many of their central priorities,” she continued.

Despite the focus on equality in education, large achievement gaps between racial and socioeconomic groups still persist. This may be due to the rhetoric not translating into to effective legislation.

"The problem is that rhetorical commitment to educational equality has not always been followed through with practices that redistribute resources to the neediest students," Gordon said.

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