WASHINGTON - Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso and members of a newly formed coalition called yesterday for education issues to be part of the presidential campaign and urged the candidates to focus attention on the achievement gap between black students and white students.
Alonso was among a half-dozen educators, politicians and civil rights activists who launched the Education Equity Project during a news conference at the National Press Club. The coalition wants educational inequities to be viewed as a civil rights issue and is calling for even more drastic changes than the major school reform efforts of the past decade.
Other members of the coalition are New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein; philanthropist Eli Broad; Corey A. Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J.; and the new schools leader in Washington, Michelle Rhee.
"Why are we, the civil rights community, being silent when only 40 percent of black men are graduating from high school?" asked the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Klein said the group plans to issue position papers and file recommendations to improve the federal role in schools. He and Sharpton, whom he said are "an odd couple" will go on a tour together to highlight school problems.
Klein said that neither of the presumed presidential nominees is discussing education and that there are plans to have education conferences at both party conventions this summer.
Roy Romer, the former governor of Colorado, a coalition member, said that in all of the presidential debates, too few questions dealt with education. Romer said there were 160 questions asked of candidates in the debates before one dealt with education, and that question was "Who was your favorite teacher?"
Klein, Alonso and Rhee, who spoke yesterday, have gained reputations as superintendents who are rapidly moving to make sweeping changes in their school districts. They and Sharpton spoke of the inequalities that remain in American education and said that it has become the civil rights issue of our time.
"We are still allowing the color of a child's skin and their ZIP code determine their education," Rhee said.
Rhee and Alonso have been in their jobs only about a year. Alonso has given more authority to principals and parents, is opening new schools and trying to slim the bureaucracy. Rhee has gotten the authority from Washington's city council to fire administrators who do not meet standards.
Rhee and Alonso talked about how badly the students in their districts were performing on tests. Baltimore has one of the worst graduation rates in the nation, according to one ranking, Alonso said, and only 14 percent of students who graduate from city schools and go to college will graduate in five years.
They called for more revolutionary shifts than are common in school districts around the country. For instance, they said that teachers should be paid more, given more training and let go when they are not successful.
They support charter schools and more accountability for everyone, including central office staff.
Klein also voiced support for merit pay teachers who perform well. The concept is unpopular with teachers unions that are concerned that the money would not be fairly distributed.