Brian Jones has asked us to pause during the 2011 MLK Day to consider King's reaction to the achievement gap that persists well into the twenty-first century, suggesting that education policy begun under George W. Bush—No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—and accelerated under Barack Obama works against King's dream.
As Jones mentions, political leaders are apt to quote King selectively, focusing on King's words that serve their political and ideological purposes—Republican and Democrats alike. I agree with Jones, and suggest we spend more time and energy on the challenges from King in 1967 that Jones recommends.
I also recommend that we place King's messages in the context of today's public claims coming from the new reformers, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (November 4, 2010):
"Education is still the key to eliminating gender inequities, to reducing poverty, to creating a sustainable planet, and to fostering peace. And in a knowledge economy, education is the new currency by which nations maintain economic competitiveness and global prosperity."
How would King respond to this Utopian expectation coming from the same educational leader who regularly characterizes our public schools and their teachers as failures?
In "Final Words of Advice" from 1967, King asserted directly:
"I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective—the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income. . . . We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished."
In the past forty years, the evidence is overwhelming that King was right then, and that Duncan is wrong now. This is a sobering civil rights and social justice message to face in the first weeks of 2011 as we honor the work of Dr. King, but the evidence is clear that the U.S. and all countries must address the plight of poverty directly through a variety of social commitments, recognizing that the education system is part of the solution but not the source of miracles that political leaders and the media claim.
Like Jones, I wonder further how King would respond to the education policies coming from the Obama administration, which seems committed to the new reformers' corporate model for public schools—notably the great charter compromise among all political ideologies.
The original charter school movement focused on relieving public schools of bureaucratic mandates, creating real-world laboratories for experimentation in order to benefit all public schools. But the charter school movement endorsed and perpetuated by Obama and the new reformers is a corporate model, characterized by Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ).
While much of the charter school debate has focused on "no excuses" ideology and student achievement, often absent in the public discourse is the impact of charter schools and all aspects of school choice on student populations (race, income, special needs, ELL) and most importantly on segregation.
In my own work examining school choice, I identified some basic patterns among school choice options. One important fact of choice is that while choice is rarely taken when offered, parents tend to choose for non-academic reasons, creating stratification and thus working against one of the central tenants of King's civil rights agenda—desegregation.
And while we can only speculate about King's response to the corporate charter school movement, we now have some valuable evidence of his reaction. A study by Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, and Wang from the Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPAA), "Choice without Equity: Charter School Segregation," presents a sobering picture of the segregating impact that charter movement is having on children (from the abstract):
"Our findings suggest that charters currently isolate students by race and class. This analysis of recent data finds that charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation. In some regions, white students are over-represented in charter schools while in other charter schools, minority students have little exposure to white students. Data about the extent to which charter schools serve low-income and English learner students is incomplete, but suggest that a substantial share of charter schools may not enroll such students. As charters represent an increasing share of our public schools, they influence the level of segregation experienced by all of our nation's school children."
While promising Utopian results from public education is also promising failure, we can begin to state with a good deal of certainty that the new reformers' endorsement of corporate charter schools is inverting King's dream of racial and economic harmony.
Yet, questions remain, and I cannot improve upon King's similar charge from "Where Do We Go from Here?":
"I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about 'Where do we go from here,' that we honestly face the fact that the Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, 'Why are there forty million poor people in America?' And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this,
"• You begin to ask the question, 'Who owns the oil?'
"• You begin to ask the question, 'Who owns the iron ore?'
"• You begin to ask the question, 'Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?'
"These are questions that must be asked."