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8/30/2013 - Mayor Finch: Public education as new civil rights frontier
I grew up the son of a steelworker. My parents held on to a dream that I would have access to opportunity, the same access to opportunity that all children should have. Though I was only 7 years old when I watched Dr. King make his famous speech, I can still vividly recall the response I felt on that fateful day. Inspired by the words of Dr. King and the work of President John F. Kennedy, I decided to pursue a career in public service.

Fifty years ago, Dr. King and the incredibly brave men and women who marched alongside him peacefully took a stance against the many injustices plaguing America. On this 50th anniversary we acknowledge the great strides our nation has made since the March on Washington: the Equal Pay Act, Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act were all passed during Dr. King's lifetime. His legacy lives on, inspiring social justice and civil rights advocates to carry on his work, because we all recognize that there is still a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done to fully realize Dr. King's dream.

We should also recognize local leaders such as Charlie B. Tisdale of ABCD, Inc., who helped to organize busloads of people of all faiths and creeds -- Catholics, Jews and Protestants throughout the Bridgeport area traveled to the March on Washington. For the first time in history, on a national platform, people of different races, religions and ethnicities put their differences aside and came together as a united front to bring about a change that would make us a stronger nation.

As we stand here today, we take great pride in the contributions of the civil rights movement. However, we must, once again, put our differences aside and come together to work on the most important civil rights issue we face today -- improving our public education system.

The current state of our public education system is still a far cry from the equality Dr. King spoke of and marched for. His march included equality in the form of jobs and freedom -- neither of which can be truly attainable in a lacking school system. Urban education reform is and must continue to be a mainstay on the national public agenda toward a better future. We have to put our adult agendas aside and come together to provide high-quality learning environments to reverse the educational access gap in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities.

Here in Bridgeport, the sheer number of students falling behind in the school system or opting to drop out and head into a workforce that has no room for unskilled workers reminds us that there remains critical work to be done.

Fifty percent of Bridgeport students drop out of our high schools, and half of the dropouts find their way into our prison systems. Of the 50 percent of the students who do graduate from high school, many leave with the skills of an eighth-grader. Only one of four elementary school students is reading at grade level. As you can see from these overwhelming statistics, we can't continue to wait for others to give us the change we need.

We have taken steps towards improving our schools by building several new school campuses, including Discovery Interdistrict Magnet School and the three new high schools located on the brand new Fairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Campus. These interdistrict schools bring urban and suburban students together, in the spirit of Dr. King's vision of desegregation.

We're partnering with local universities to give our students free and early access to college, removing another barrier to higher education. Under the current leadership, our school system has made great strides but more work needs to be done. We must put our affiliations aside, and come together like so many Americans did on Aug. 28, 1963, and fight for the common goal of improving our schools and improving our nation's future.

As a mayor, I know that education is the civil rights issue of our generation. Access to quality education isn't just a civil right ... it is human right.

One day every Bridgeport student will have the opportunity to receive a stellar education regardless of his or her race, socioeconomic status, religion or Zip code. As mayor of the city, I recognize that we have to do better. Our nation as a whole must come together in manifesting the incredible dream verbalized by Dr. King a mere 50 years ago.