"The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. ... Intelligence plus character -- that is the goal of true education."


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That quote encapsulates the vision that America's most well-known civil rights leader had for all of this nation's students -- that the "content of character'' could be shaped by a strong education.

A champion of equity who grew up in the racially segregated South, King wrote, marched, preached and ultimately died working for people of all races to have peace, jobs, housing, health care -- and access to a quality education.

It's safe to assume that the man we celebrate today would be disappointed about where this nation stands in most of those areas. Though some progress has occurred, the nation still falls short of King's vision for a stronger, more compassionate community.

The Occupy Wall Street movement grew out of the glaring economic inequities that persist. Thousands of lives and billions of dollars have been lost in foreign wars.

And King would be especially heartbroken to see that more than 50 years after the Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision, his vision for education is far from fulfilled.

In Minnesota, educational outcomes for kids of color continue to lag far behind those of their white peers. As the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now (MinnCan) reported last year, the learning disparities are an education "emergency'' that demands immediate attention.

MinnCan's work reaffirmed numerous studies over the years about the state's serious, persistent learning gap.

Among the indicators: Minnesota's African-American students score worse than their black peers in the Deep South; the gap between low-income eighth-graders and their more affluent counterparts is almost the worst in the country; only 18 percent of state teachers say their students are ready to do grade-level work, and National Assessment of Education Progress scores show that Minnesota Latino and black students are second and third from the bottom among their peers of the same race from other states.

Last week's "2012 Children & Youth Issues Briefing" in St. Paul highlighted the problems and focused on plans for the next year that are designed to improve student achievement and coordinate efforts.

The event, which was sponsored by five major nonprofits that work on preschool, youth and education issues, was well-timed. The state has received a nearly $90 million boost in education funding.

Last month, Minnesota was awarded a $45 million Race to the Top grant for early education initiatives. In addition, the Northside Achievement Zone got another $28 million to improve educational outcomes for a 250-block area of the North Side of Minneapolis.

And the University of Minnesota and a group of partners received a $15 million grant to set up child-parent centers for poor families.

A significant portion of those funds will be concentrated on younger students of color -- from birth to grade three -- and their families. Research has shown that ensuring that preschool and early elementary kids do well in school reaps tremendous benefits.

More than 800 people attended the briefing. One speaker described attendees as an encouraging "army'' of individuals and organizations ready turn the bleak educational statistics around.

That strength of the turnout in people committed to "intelligence and character'' for children in a "beloved community" would have made King proud.

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