Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times reporter known for her coverage of civil rights in the United States, talks with students on Oct. 10 in the auditorium at Reynolds High School.

Governments are instituted not only to provide national security from external threats, but also to promote order and prosperity internally. Government must promote “the general welfare” of its citizens for a democracy to survive and thrive, as recognized in the Constitution. Any nation not ensuring a superb education for every citizen is ultimately condemned to mediocrity.

Our failure to educate all of our children well, preparing them for productive, meaningful lives, is troubling. Behind every statistic, we should picture specific youngsters — will our schools provide the foundation necessary for them to realize their gifts, hopes and dreams?

Recently, a collaboration of congregations, foundations, universities and nonprofits came together to bring Nikole Hannah-Jones to our community. An investigative reporter for The New York Times Magazine, she has focused on our history of discriminatory practices, particularly in education, resulting in racially based disparities in achievement. Attended by a diverse audience of more than 1,000 community members, her lecture skillfully wove together historical events and national and local data on student achievement. Our country has had 400 years of discrimination, from slavery through the Civil War, the backlash to Reconstruction, Jim Crow practices and legislation excluding most African Americans from the educational benefits of the GI Bill and redlining practices that maintained segregated housing patterns. It should come as no surprise that minority populations still don’t experience the equity promised by original American documents.

Presidents of both parties have seen that government should ensure that every citizen has equal access to educational opportunities allowing maximum development of abilities. Abraham Lincoln called for “an expanded system of public education,” describing education as “the cornerstone of democracy, (adding) the great bulwark against a potential dictator is an informed people.” Said Franklin Roosevelt, “The school is the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize.” In 1954, the Supreme Court declared school segregation unlawful, saying: “Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments… the very foundation of good citizenship…”

Assuring equity in education is both a moral imperative and an economic necessity in the self-interest of business and communities. We cannot afford to fail any of our students. At a time when most jobs require more education and skills than ever, many American students struggle to reach basic proficiency. Locally, we should be ashamed that End of Grade Testing shows 30-40% disparities for minority students in reading, math and science. Likewise, nationally, American students are not doing as well as those in other developed countries. Among 71 countries, our students ranked 38th in math and 24th in science, and 40% of U.S. fourth-graders and 34% of eighth-graders were below proficiency in reading and math.

What will change this picture? Let’s get honest. It is sobering, but essential, to recognize that we do not have a genuine “culture of education” in this country, dedicated to a system of excellent public schools serving every child well. Without this, our country will not be an international leader in any field.

What needs to change? Providing educational excellence is a complex task, involving both the schools and the community environment. A few things immediately rise to the top:

Make education a priority: We must build public and political commitment to education, with the will to pay the cost for excellence. John Dewey wrote, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own children … the community must want for all its children.”

Hold schools accountable: Hannah-Jones insisted on asking hard questions:

If this school is not good enough for my child, why should it be good enough for any child?

What children are we willing to sacrifice to anything less than an education calling forth their full gifts?

How do we overcome segregated patterns of housing to ensure integrated schools?

After the Supreme Court decision in 1954, integrated schools clearly began reducing race-based disparities in achievement; these gains disappeared with the loss of court-ordered integration.

Elevate respect, requirements and compensation for teachers while ensuring continuous professional development and support: We should encourage the best and brightest from all racial groups to become teachers!

Create a community environment strengthening families and reducing poverty, so that parents have the means to support their children’s optimal development.

Offer exciting classroom environments and instruction: Eliminate over-testing; ensure that instruction is exciting, addresses different learning styles and engages every student at an experiential level, including art, music, physical education and vocational skills. Emphasize critical thinking and excellent character, so that children are able to separate truth from lies, learn the lessons of history, and live lives of integrity.

The key to having a great country is providing a great education to every citizen.

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Dean Clifford is a former teacher and the founding director of Smart Start in Forsyth County.

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