Dennis Van Roekel Speaks at March on Washington Celebration
NEA President Dennis Van Roekel’s remarks at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.
August 24, 2013
Good morning. I’m Dennis Van Roekel, and I represent three million members of the National Education Association.
This is the time of year when 50 million American students go back to public schools. Most of them will return to schools with well-trained teachers who provide individual attention to every student, and classrooms that are clean and safe, if not luxurious. They’ll have computers and iPads and whiteboards to help them learn, labs for science class, gymnasiums for sports. Most will come from homes where they have plenty to eat, a safe place to sleep, and see a doctor if they are sick.
But millions of our nation’s children will find a different world at their school. Many of their teachers will lack experience or professional certification. Classrooms will be crowded and dilapidated, hallways dim, with no natural light. Students won’t have access to computers, or even up-to-date textbooks. And many of these children won’t get enough to eat, or get enough sleep, or always see a doctor when they’re sick.
Our nation doesn’t have one education system — we have two. Children of the well-to-do receive a fine education, but children from poor families are short-changed, and that theft — yes, theft! — perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
Fifty years ago, as Dr. King noted, hundreds of thousands of Americans came here to cash a check — to redeem our nation’s promise of equal opportunity.
“Now is the time,” he said, “to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children.”
Education is the key that opens those doors.
Without education, there can be no good jobs … no freedom … no justice.
Fifty years after Dr. King called upon our nation to open those doors, too many children of color still don’t enjoy equal opportunities in education.
In our nation today, a student from a high-income family is seven times more likely to enroll in an elite college than a student from a low-income family.
For those of us who share Dr. King’s Dream, this is unacceptable.
So today I ask all of you to join NEA in our fight for equal opportunity in education.
Let’s start by demanding high-quality early childhood education for every child!
Demand equitable funding for all schools … in all neighborhoods!
Demand qualified teachers for every classroom!
Demand an end to discipline policies that drive students out of school instead of engaging them!
NEA has always fought for public education, and we also have a proud tradition of working for social justice.
This week I had the privilege of meeting some of our members who attended the March on Washington 50 years ago. They explained how that historic event inspired their careers as teachers. Also this week, NEA hosted training sessions for young activists from many organizations. And we have organized our own members to stand up for students and social justice.
We are all here today to honor history, but we’re focused on the present — what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of now.”
Because now is the time to protect voting rights …
Now is the time to fix our broken immigration system …
Now is the time to demand equal rights for our LGBT neighbors and family members …
And now is the time to provide equal opportunities in education … so we can open the doors of opportunity for all children!