WWKD: What would MLK do in this age of Educational Reform?


Recently I saw an interesting twitter conversation take place over how Martin Luther King Jr. might feel about the modern day education reform movement.

The conversation started with a tweet by Sam Pirozzolo

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The edweek article recounts the recent Wisconsin supreme court case ruling that sided against unions and upheld right to work laws. This quickly turned into a debate over organized labor with Linda1746 criticizing Dr. Steve Perry, who is a a pro-charter school principal by showing a tweet he made in November of 2013 with her own graphics thrown in:


Others came to Perry’s defense with tweets such as this one from a twitter account known as the NYC Parents Union:

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Perry himself also responded with such tweets as:

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WWKD: What would King Do?

Obviously, others on twitter asked Perry to back up his claims and he suggested that his view of MLK Jr. could be substantiated by a book written by King entitled Where do we go From Here? Chaos or Community. According to Stanford:

While vacationing in the Caribbean in January and February 1967, King wrote the first draft of his final book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Accompanied by Coretta Scott King, Bernard Lee, and Dora McDonald, King rented a secluded house in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, with no telephone. This was one of the very few times in King’s adult life that he was completely isolated from the demands of the movement and could focus entirely on his writing. He labored on the initial manuscript for a month, sending chapters to Stanley Levison in New York for his revisions.

Because Perry’s view of King is quite a non-traditional one (as AFT president Randi Weingarten noted, King supported strikes for Sanitation workers right up to his death), I thought I should check Perry on his claims. The following is what I discovered as I read through the book.

When both sides of the aisle (in this case the unions and the school reformers) claim that King was on their side, there is not so much a battle about what happened, but a battle over the interpretation of what happened. Furthermore, trying to find King’s views on a subject that really did not exist during his lifetime makes the question somewhat anachronistic. Similar arguments trying to suss out Jeffersonian or Hamiltonian views on contemporary America tire out historians due to their highly theoretical foundations.

How would MLK feel about contemporary education?

MLK’s critical tone toward segregation in the United States spread from bus boycotts and lunch counter protests of the 1950s to desegregating schools and places of work in the 1960s. If we are to ask any question about King’s views on education, they must be couched in terms of how well any reform methods would lead to higher levels of school integration. In other words, if King were alive today, what would he think of the state of integration in the year 2014? Any other discussion of tenure, due process for teachers, or effective teaching would take a back seat for him to school integration.

Any cursory look at the current state of education shows that segregation has increased since the 1970s, but not in the way you think:

Desegregation progress was very substantial for blacks, and occurred in the South from the mid- 1960s to the late l980s. Contrary to many claims, the South has not gone back to the level of segregation before Brown. It has lost all of the additional progress made after l967 but is still the least segregated region for black students.

The growth of segregation has been most dramatic for Latino students, particularly in the West, where there was substantial integration in the l960s, and segregation has soared. A clear pattern is developing of black and Latino students sharing the same schools; it deserves serious attention from educators and policymakers.

Segregation is typically segregation by both race and poverty. Black and Latino students tend to be in schools with a substantial majority of poor children, but white and Asian students are typically in middle-class schools.

Additionally, with states like Texas looking to replace governors, debates about school segregationn are raging throughout the United States. The issue of segregation comes up again and again as we consider reforms in contemporary America.

In addition to his views on desegregation, King also believed that a kind of “first act” in the Civil Rights movement ended after the 1960s. In this first act, whites had acquiesced to civil rights pressure because:

The practical cost of change [in civil rights] for the nation up to this point had been cheap. The limited reforms have been observed at bargain rates. There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities with whites. Even the psychological adjustment is far from formidable. Having exaggerated the emotional difficulties for decades, when demands for new conduct became inescapable, white Southerners may have trembled under the strain but they did not collapse. (excerpt from “Where do we Go from here” by King, 5-6)

King goes on to talk about the greater cost that white America will have to pay if they truly want to see justice brought to America. This second phase would see the “stiffening of white resistance” because “the long-range costs of adequately implementing programs to fight poverty, ignorance, and slums will reach 1 trillion dollars” (Where do We go from Here, 6).

The two issues of segregation and white resistance to real change is the lens through which I will try to explain King’s views on education and unions.

MLK on School Desegregation

In the initial portions of the book, as I noted above, King’s primary criticism of the public school system is their continued support of segregation in deed (even if their words said otherwise) when he notes that:

Even the Supreme court, despite its original courage and integrity, curbed itself only a little . . . when it handed down its Pupil Placement decision, in effect returning to the states the power to determine the tempo of change. This subsequent decision became the keystone that slowed school desegregation down to a crawl (p. 11)

This criticism of segregation is not limited to the actual people in the school. King is quick to criticize a school performance he went to where:

. . . we listened to the folk music and melodies of various immigrant groups. We were certain that the program would end with the most original of all American music, the Negro spiritual. But we were mistaken . . . All the students, black and white . . . had been victimized by just another expression of America’s penchant for ignoring the Negro, making him invisible and making his contributions insignificant.

Rather than just criticize physical segregation, King also criticizes the cultural segregation where schools ignore black contributions to American society. Throughout the book, MLK ruthlessly criticizes overt segregation and de facto segregation.

In this first case regarding segregation, MLK would probably make the same argument as the union, but probably would not ally himself with the unions (especially after the UFT actions of 1968. MLK and the union both bring up again and again throughout the book the issue of poverty. In this sense, I believe MLK and the unions would agree that educational inequity is primarily an issue of poverty and segregation rather that side with the reformers who primarily argue that ineffective teachers are what hold back the education system.

But MLK would probably have at least one caveat about the union argument. MLK would probably view the current party lines within the Union as defeatist. He says in his book that:

In the days ahead we must not consider it unpatriotic to raise certain basic questions about our national character. We must begin to ask: Why are there forty million poor people in a nation overflowing with such unbelievable affluence? Why has our nation placed itself in the position of being God’s military agent on earth, and intervened recklessly in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic? . . .

All these questions remind us that there is a need for a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society. For its very survival’s sake, America must reexamine old presuppositions and release itself from many things that for centuries have been held sacred. For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born. Our economy must become more person-centered than property- and profit-centered. Our government must depend more on its moral power than on its military power. (141-142)

First MLK notes that we must not be afraid to ask the tough questions. MLK would probably be quick to note that teachers are not asking these tough questions. For instance, why are teachers not allying themselves more fully within the communities they teach and fighting for the rights of the community to educational equity? Why is it accepted, for instance, that poor families must remain poor in their communities? I don’t think MLK would allow union to escape with their pat answers without asking these deeper questions.

Secondly, the arguments that MLK makes here and in other places give evidence to the idea that King was probably a Social Democrat. He talks in another part of the book that America is “still far behind” when compared to countries like England and France because they “provide more relative security for their people” (14). For education outcomes to change significantly, King would argue that everything else in America (beyond just rhetoric) would need to change as well.

Education is not a Vacuum

As noted in the quotes from the last section, King argued that a “radical restructuring” of society was necessary. Although some in the government worried that King might be a communist, King really wanted a safety net to avoid poverty for all people. King thought of the Civil Rights movement as something for more than just blacks:

Let us, therefore, not think of our movement as one that seeks to integrate the Negro into all the existing values of American society. Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humanness. (142)

King goes on to say that the black community is “equipped” for this because they have been “seared in the flames of suffering” and “have learned from our have-not status that it profits a nation little to gain the whole world of means and lose the end, its own soul” (142).

Rather than asking the black community to enter into white community and simply be accepted, King represented the white system in their purely capitalistic, entrepreneurial exuberance as fundamentally flawed. Instead of buying into this white American dream and become a stock broker in a get rich quick scheme, King challenges his audience to consider the values of the stock market and getting rich quickly while others are dying of malnutrition. King challenges all his listeners, teachers and students included, to imagine a new world full of justice that injects “new meaning into the veins of American life” (142).

I assume King viewed the ends of education similarly. King would have argued that, like civil rights activists, educators are entrusted as the guardians of this just society King dreams of.

Tying these two themes within the book together, King sees schools as part of a nationwide movement to end desegregation of all kinds. Schools, however, are just one part of a system where very powerful people keep their jobs by maintaining the status quo. The integration of schools would be just one part of MLK’s goal of an integrated society built on just principles. He might view the schools as centers for this integration to take place, but integration of the schools alone would not be enough for King.

He talks a lot about slums and ghettos in the books and the real economic changes that would have to take place on a systemic, governmental level for any real change to take place. For instance, King argues:

Negroes have irrevocably undermined the foundations of Southern segregation: they have assembled the power through self-organization and coalition to place their demands on all significant national agendas . . . From issues of personal dignity they are now advancing to programs that impinge upon the basic system of social and economic control. At this level Negro programs go beyond race and deal with economic inequality, wherever it exists. In the pursuit of these goals, the white poor become involved, and the potentiality emerges for a powerful new alliance. (17)

And later argues that:

We must use every constructive means to amass economic and political power. This is the kind of legitimate power we need. We must work to build racial pride and refute the notion that black is evil and ugly. But this must come through a program, not merely through a slogan.

MLK realized that words only get a person so far. At a certain point, we need to have a plan and that plan needs to have realizable goals that create reasonable programs.

In terms of economic issues, MLK probably would have sided with the unions. I don’t think MLK would have stood with the reformers who call for the dismissals of teachers as a solution to educational problems. I would argue that MLK’s main concerns would be implementing systemic changes such as ending suspension rates which obviously work against minority issues. MLK would have fought for community programs that aim to empower minorities at a local level.

I also don’t think MLK would have seen charters as an acceptable alternative for public education.

MLK would probably not have accepted charters as a reasonable substitute for public schools for two main reasons: 1) Charters make up less than 10% of schools. 2) Charters are often as segregated (or sometimes more segregated) than public schools.

For reason #1, King would make the argument that making 10% of schools really, really good is not a solution for 90% of the students in America. As we have already noted, MLK saw education in terms of a larger socioeconomic system and I simply can’t imagine that he would be happy with just 10% of schools being good while the rest wallow.

Reason #2 is obviously the more important issue. The UCLA civil rights project had this to say in regards to charter schools segregation levels:

Our analysis of the 40 states, the District of Columbia, and several dozen metropolitan areas with large enrollments of charter school students reveals that charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation. While examples of truly diverse charter schools exist, our data show that these schools are not reflective of broader charter trends.

While we want to keep in mind that these rates vary widely from state to state (based on state law), the general trend is worrying and would most definitely have worried MLK.

The Connection between Education and Politics

One interesting people group that King uses in the book is the Jews. First pointing out the stereotype that Jews “attained social mobility and status today because they had money,” (163) MLK dismisses this as a lie and states instead:

Jews progressed because they possessed a tradition of education combined with social and political action. The Jewish family enthroned education and sacrificed to get it. The result was far more than abstract learning. Uniting social action with educational competence, Jews became enormously effective in political life. These Jews who became lawyers, businessmen, writers, entertainers, union leaders, and medical men did not vanish into the pursuits of their trade exclusively. They lived an active life in political circles, learning techniques and arts of politics. (163)

King goes on to argue that Jews and Blacks, despite their many differences, have a shared heritage of suffering. And King argues that Blacks “must involve everyone we can reach, even those with inadequate education, and together acquire political sophistication by discussion, practice and reading.” King goes on saying that “Education without social action is a one-sided value because it has not true power potential” (164).

King sees a direct line between education and politics, especially in the formation of protest movements and oppressed people groups. He goes on to argue that such a movement must start at the local level to “turn the ghettos into a vast school” (165).

Of course, we must remember that this book is, at least in part, a response to the black power movement that formed in reaction to non-violent movements like King. This book for King is a kind of manifesto for why non-violent movements like his might ring truer and louder than the violent movements which threatened his own. King is arguing that we ought to value education because it allows for discussion and organization to happen at the local level where people don’t need to give in to what he refers to as the “dim past” of slavery and oppression.

What to Learn from MLK

As the last section shows, MLK’s main concern was using education for blacks to help them organize and use non-violent social action to make the world a more just place. So in this sense, I must sadly conclude by saying that MLK would have little to say to the modern education movement on either side.

He might remind the union that they are, in some ways, complicit in the actions of de facto segregation by not clamoring louder and organizing more fiercely for educational equity in all parts of the United States. He might remind elected officials all over the United States that segregation didn’t disappear simply because people have accepted a new form it. He might remind the teachers union that perhaps many of these parents bringing suits like Vegara have legitimate complaints based on years of de facto segregation.
On the other hand, he might also remind the education reformers that if their primary target is teachers, they are shooting the primary people who dedicated their lives to empowering students to do the types of things that King asks. He might remind the reformers that these teachers take meager salaries to do a very difficult job with very little satisfaction. He might also remind the reformers that castigating the teachers as the center of the problems may push even more away from a profession that already affords little respect in the United States (especially compared with other countries like Finland where teachers are respected on the same level as doctors and lawyers).

And he might remind all of us that the world is far from the dream he shared on the steps of the Capitol. As an example, I would like to share a quote that shows a very subtle form of racism that King noted in the 1960s that still exists very powerfully today:

Often white liberals are unaware of their latent prejudices. A while ago I ran into a white woman who was anxious to discuss the race problem with me. She said: ‘I am very liberal. I have no prejudices toward Negroes. I believe Negroes should have the right to vote . . . Of course, I must confess that I would not want my daughter to marry a Negro.’ This lad could not see that her failure to accept intermarriage negated her claim to genuine liberalism.

I am a union member of the Los Angeles Unified School District and I will support my union because, when done correctly, unions have the power to try and erase these types of latent prejudice as we work with communities on a local level. We can combat prejudice like this (which still exists to a great extent, especially in relationships) if we combine social action and education. I’m not suggesting that every single teacher needs to attend all protests in the area, but I am suggesting that teachers ought to be more involved in their communities and parents.

If they were more involved, there would be no need for watchdog groups because parents would feel secure coming to a teacher or administrator and knowing the problem would be dealt with. Obviously, such social action on the part of teachers will not solve all problems, nor will it stop vested interests from trying to take away tenure and other protections from teachers, but it would go a hell of a long way in helping to create the type of world King and others stood for.


When we examine these issues from this perspective, I think we can agree that short sighted twitter battles like those between pro-reform movements like Perry and those who favor protecting teachers dumb down a much more important conversation. Not only could I not find the elements that Perry was arguing MLK stood for, but I could find very little, if any, support for charters or reform movements in MLK’s book. I’ve already stated that, on other side, the unions have no track record to show that they’ve fought to integrate schools or engage with communities on the level that King called for.

Perhaps we ought to think of King as a beacon of light guiding us toward the mountaintop. I do not say this to make his mountaintop a utopia. King would be the first to argue that the mountaintop is not some pie-in-the-sky notion of theoretical foundations. Rather, education, when thought of as part of the larger socioeconomic factors that affect cities in the United States, ought to be places where this world of justice collides with reality.


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