[This article first appeared in the Orange County Register on March 30, 2016.]
Last month, I had the honor of welcoming a diverse group of high school counselors, college-access providers and higher education administrators to the California ACT State Organization’s conference on “The California Promise: Achieving Social Justice Through College and Career Readiness.”
This topic – educational access and equity – is, of course, at the very heart of Cal State Fullerton’s mission, so it was a particular privilege to speak about the history of inclusive excellence in California and offer a call to action to galvanize our collective energies toward renewing our commitment to those ideals, captured in the following excerpt.
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Thank you for being here with us today, and thank you for all you do to keep the California Promise alive. Today, you will hear from men and women who have dedicated their lives to advancing the tenets of social justice, and you will be inspired by individuals who valiantly work to hold California accountable for fulfilling its promise of opportunity and social mobility for all those that work hard and play by the rules.
The moral mandate of our education system hasn’t changed in the nearly six decades since the formulation of the California Master Plan for Higher Education as a vehicle to – in the words of (former UC president) Clark Kerr – balance the “competing demands of fostering excellence and guaranteeing educational access for all.” But the context in which we operate has.
Our country’s demographics are changing at an unprecedented rate, with the state of California leading the way; yet we continue to cluster our low-income students and students of color in schools where we spend less and expect less. The economic value of higher education to individuals, communities and our nation is at an all-time high, yet the public investments in our schools and higher education institutions are headed toward all-time lows relative to the efforts of other nations across the world.
And I am sure that each and every one of you has experienced firsthand the frustrations and failures of a system that is supposed to reward merit, but too often rewards accidents of birth, ZIP code or skin color.
The fact is that we are facing large-scale, unique, unprecedented challenges – challenges that are being felt increasingly across the nation. And the nation is looking toward us, as it has always done, for a model of how to move forward.
If we are to lead the way, we need to acknowledge the reality that in order for higher education to fulfill its promise of inclusive excellence, we can’t treat it as an isolated component, but as part of an educational continuum. We need to broker productive relationships between the K–12 system and higher ed.
It is our collective responsibility to ensure that, from the very beginning of their educational journey, all students are encouraged to aspire toward college attainment; that all students graduate from high school prepared for college-level work; that all students have access to a high-quality college education; and that all students have the opportunity to succeed once they get here.
But the reality is that we must do more. We cannot just see ourselves as teachers, as counselors or as administrators – but also as citizens, as activists and as advocates. We cannot fulfill our full potential as educators until we assume our responsibility to influence the public discourse.
Of course, promoting educational equity doesn’t have to be partisan – but it does have to be political. And there is no better time than in an election year to make our voices heard and our ideas resonate.
So as you participate in today’s workshops and engage with these ideas, I encourage you to think about not only how they impact your job – but also how you can amplify them in larger ways, in every aspect of your lives.
At the beginning of my address, I said that today you would have the chance to hear from some of the most inspiring and dedicated people on the frontlines of education in America. Those people are not only the distinguished panelists and presenters who will be leading the sessions today.
Those people are you.