MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are spending this hour talking about education. You can join the conversation as well on Twitter using #NPRedchat. Later in the program, we'll hear from some people who are directly affected by today's education system, but too often are not heard. We are talking about the students. But first, NPR's education correspondent Claudio Sanchez is with us. We asked him to stop by and talk about some of the stories he'll be looking at this year. Welcome back, Claudio, at this beginning of the school.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Good to be here as always.
MARTIN: As the nation looks back at 50 years since the March on Washington, we've been talking about the fact that education, many policymakers say, is the civil rights issue of our time. You talk to teachers all the time. Do educators think that?
SANCHEZ: I think they do deep down. They may not articulate it always, but they know what the problem is. I mean, for all the progress we've seen since the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, our schools are still segregated by race and increasingly by class. And that plays itself out in schools. And as Secretary Duncan was saying earlier, the fact is that the vast majority of poor black and Latino children today receive an inferior education. There's no doubt about that. Today, black students are, for example, are three times also more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled. That's why there's been this growing movement in places like Texas to deal with what's called the "school to prison pipeline."
And the progress we've seen under this administration - under the first black president - is notable. On the one hand, this is an administration that has focused on what it once considered 2,000 dropout factories, mostly high schools. And the Department of Education has made it known, of course, has cited the fact that we now have less black and Latino kids especially, in these kinds of schools. Seven hundred thousand kids, in fact, have now found options, alternatives. But that doesn't mean that we've solved the problem, clearly. African-American, Latino kids are graduating in greater numbers, greater percentages. More of them are attending college. But the administration has also a big problem on its hands, and that has to do with the more narrow - I shouldn't say more narrow - but the specific issue of school closings.
Because it went out and set out to essentially get rid of all these failing schools, a lot of school closings have taken place in places like Chicago, for example, which has gotten the bulk of the coverage. Chicago is ground zero for the school closings issue, and that's a problem for the administration because on the one hand, no one would argue that you need to close failing schools. On the other, closing schools means getting rid of neighborhood schools. And that has affected minority communities disproportionately and created enormous problems politically and educationally in places like Chicago and at least 12 other big cities.
MARTIN: So you're telling us - among sort of the civil rights issues of education is not just the fact that institutions are segregated, but what happens within these institutions, even when they are dominated by one race or ethnicity, is still cause for concern. I do want to ask you about one of the projects you'll be looking at this year is the future of schools that are, in fact, still segregated by race and class - Memphis schools in particular. Could you talk a little bit about that?
SANCHEZ: Well, two years ago, Michel, the Memphis City School Board voted to surrender its charter so that it could merge with a county public school - Shelby County. The move to do this, to essentially join the majority black-urban school system with a majority white-suburban system, split the community, exposing really, really deep divisions between blacks and whites, rich and poor. A huge fight ensued, but this summer, notwithstanding legal challenges, they merged creating a majority black school board.
Shelby County's all white seven member school board opposed the merger arguing that the two systems were too different - their academic culture, their funding priorities and clearly their kids, their population. Memphis, the city, folks said, essentially - were portrayed anyway - as dysfunctional. A dysfunctional school system run by inapt people. So the merger, in the eyes of suburban, mostly white folks, was that this merger was a terrible merger. It was a terrible idea because it would merge two systems that were so unequal and that one would infect - and that was a word that was used.
SANCHEZ: You know, the good schools with bad schools. Even though this merger, by the way, doesn't call for busing black or white kids around, Memphis students still will have more options to go to Shelby County schools, which opens the door to more black kids going to majority white schools. And that, of course, has been a door that's been closed for a long time.
MARTIN: OK. Before we let you go - obviously, again, so much to talk about here - I wanted to get one more kind of big-picture thought from you. Education reform is like immigration reform in a lot of ways. It's something that everybody agrees - it seems like most people agree things need to happen, but there's a lot of intensity of feeling and emotion around it that keeps things from happening. In immigration reform, there are just some philosophical differences about what the country's priorities should be. Is the same true on education or are we merging in some ways? Do you see more consensus around at least the target or the goal, and is the primary disagreement over the means to get there? Are we still really far apart on some of these issues?
SANCHEZ: I think it's the latter, Michel. I mean, clearly, there are clear objectives that no one would argue with. Common core is a good example. Let's raise the rigor of academic progress or least of what we are expecting our kids to do. How you get there is the problem, and we don't have a consensus. In fact, we're seeing an enormous amount of division now because there is no agreement. We have 50 states with a history of each state doing its own thing. Now we have a federal mandate, a federal policy, that says, we should all come together on very common things, but to get people to agree on this, I mean, it's created a very strange bedfellows.
We have the right, the left, the Tea Party, the progressives, all saying we hate federal policy because it's doing more harm than good because it's dictating to locals how to best run their schools. And even though the federal role has always been to compensate, not just financially, but in so many other ways - to keep people honest on how they're educating, especially the poorest kids, minority kids, there is no consensus on how to do that. And the federal government, I think, is right now teetering on an enormous amount of hurdles and problems that really are the product of an inability to create a consensus because most people say, you have no business in telling us how to run our schools.
MARTIN: Claudio Sanchez is NPR's education correspondent. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Claudio, I hope we'll speak again soon...
SANCHEZ: ...I'm sure we will.
MARTIN: ...About these important issues. Thank you.
SANCHEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.