The unrealized dream of educational justice


Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final post in our series commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. Vernard Gant is director of Urban School Services with the Association of Christian Schools International.

by Vernard T. Grant

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, speculation abounds as to what the content of that speech would be if delivered today. It is noteworthy that in all of his speeches and writings, Dr. King had little to say about education beyond segregated schools and low performance by black students. He apparently thought that once the racial barriers of discrimination and social injustices were removed, educational disparities would self-correct. It would not be much of a stretch to suggest he would be appalled to discover that according to the latest NAEP report, black children in 2011 are still not performing in reading at the level of white children in 1970 (just two years after his death).MLK snipped

Here’s my take on what his reaction would be, a slight variation on the words from his speech: It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro [children] a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of [educational] justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of [educational] opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of [educational] freedom and the security of [educational] justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. [Brackets mine]

Just as in the days of the civil rights movement, a grave injustice is transpiring today that is adversely and profoundly impacting its victims. A quality education, essential for cashing the promissory note that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is being systematically denied families that do not have the economic means to secure one for their children.

A quality education is a purchased commodity. It depends on the financial wherewithal of individual families. It can be purchased either by paying tuition to private schools, or by paying higher mortgages and property taxes in neighborhoods with high-performing public schools. Parents who have low and moderate incomes simply do not possess the financial means to secure such an education for their children. They are bound to accept what is offered in schools assigned on the basis of where they live. They have no choice and no freedom in their children’s education. To compound matters, they are often told, from the public’s standpoint, that they should never have a choice because if they did, it would financially cripple the public school system. Translation: the important thing is not the best interest or well-being of the child, but the best interest and well-being of the system.

To add insult to injury, parents are told this by opponents of school choice and educational justice, all of whom exercise choice in where their children go to school. As a general rule, people of means naturally send their children to schools that effectively educate them. No caring parent (no matter how dedicated to a cause) would put their child in a school and sacrifice his or her education on an altar they know would fail their child. The tragedy is in the hypocrisy; what these individuals practice personally (school choice for their own children), they oppose politically for other folks’ children. They act in the best interest of their children, but insist the children of less economically advantaged families remain bound to a system that does not benefit them but rather benefits from them.

What is needed today and what Dr. King would call for is educational justice.

Children who are now bound to schools that are not working for them need to be set free to find and attend schools that do. It may be argued that all Americans have the same right to send their children to the schools of their choice. But again, a “choice” education, given the way the current system is set up, must be purchased.

It is equivalent to the poll tax or stringent exams that blacks were once subjected to in order to exercise their voting rights. All blacks in the South had the “right” to vote, but keepers of the “voting system” established barriers that prevented black people from exercising their rights. They argued it was necessary to protect “the southern way of life.” Yet, it was a “peculiar system” because they themselves were not subjected to (nor would they ever allow themselves to be subjected to) what they imposed on others. What they valued and practiced personally (voting rights for themselves), they opposed politically for others. Such is the “stuff” of injustice. The same applies to educational injustice.

Dr. King would probably speak to such an injustice because he maintained that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. It’s now time for this great nation which values and identifies itself as the land of the free and the home of the brave to do the brave thing — and the right thing. It’s time to set these children free. Let them pursue an education that will truly afford them the opportunity to dream and to realize the American dream.