School choice & civil rights

Progressives hostile to school choice groan when they hear conservatives talking about school choice as a civil right. Some choice supporters get a little uncomfortable too.

But there are plenty of folks with bona fide civil rights credentials (see hereherehere and here for starters) who use the same language, because they genuinely view the parental choice movement as another phase of the civil rights struggle.

Martin Luther King III talked about school choice in the language of progressives and civil rights supporters: freedom, justice, opportunity.
Martin Luther King III talked about school choice in the language of progressives and civil rights supporters: freedom, justice, opportunity.

Martin Luther King III is one of them. A year ago this week, he headlined a rally in Tallahassee that drew 10,000 people in opposition to the ongoing lawsuit against the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, the largest private school choice program in America.* The event spawned a ton of news coverage, and one of King’s quotes made the rounds: “If the courts have to decide, the courts will be on the side of justice,” he told the crowd. “Because this is about justice. This is about righteousness. This is about truth. This is about freedom. The freedom to choose what’s best for your family, and your child most importantly.”

The whole of King’s remarks didn’t get as much attention. (See them in the video above, starting around the 5-minute mark.) So what better time than now, the holiday commemorating his father’s birthday, to give it a spotlight?

MLK III describes himself as a human rights activist. He is pro-Obama, pro-labor, pro-environment, pro-gun control. And his speech touched on reasons for school choice that choice-friendly progressives have long emphasized, particularly opportunity and diversity. King wove in comments on other issues that day – poverty, defense spending, criminal justice – that left no doubt he’s a man of the left. I suspect the massive crowd before him that day, overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, largely shared his views.

Despite popular perception, both left and right have supported school choice, and both have advanced compelling arguments in favor. Unfortunately, the views of the pro-choice left have been obscured by a bogus narrative that vouchers, charter schools and related programs are part of a sinister, right-wing scheme to destroy public schools.

Thankfully, somebody forgot to tell MLK III – and the thousands of parents cheering him. Here’s what he said as his speech came to a close:

My dad told us a lot of things. He used to say that the ultimate measure of the human being is not where one stands in times of comfort and convenience. But where one stands in times of challenge and controversy.

He went on to say that on some questions, cowardice asks: Is the position safe? He said expediency asks: Is the position politic? He said vanity asks: Is the position popular? But that something deep inside called conscience asks: Is the position right? 

He went on to say that sometimes we must stand up for positions that are neither safe nor popular nor politic. But we must stand up because our consciences tell us they’re right. 

That’s what we are here for today. Because we’re standing on the right side of what’s right for our children … 

I hope more progressives give MLK III a listen.

Because on school choice, he’s right. From the left.

*The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog and pays my salary.