This month marks the 44th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
As we commemorate the life of Dr. King, I am reminded that for people in the education reform movement, the struggle to obtain equal access to a high-quality public education for all of our children is the civil rights issue of our time. As with the previous struggle for equality under the law, we have been issued a promissory note like the one of which Dr. King spoke of at the March on Washington in 1963.
He said: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” The note, he said, was a promise that African-Americans would be guaranteed the same rights as whites. And America had defaulted on this promissory note to its citizens of color. “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America had given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back insufficient funds,” Dr. King concluded.
In the early 1960s, the equality envisioned by the nation’s founding documents was far from a reality. People of color were discriminated against, both overtly and covertly. Today, his speech at the Lincoln memorial is credited with mobilizing the opponents of segregation, and helping to pass the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.
But we are still waiting for high-quality public education, which would enable all of our citizens to fully participate in our nation’s democracy and the global economy, to be made available to all of our children. Instead, the equivalent of a bad check has blighted entire communities, leaving millions disenfranchised, and powerless in the face of those with more resources. And those of us trying to cash the check urgently need the bank to respect its promise.
In the nation’s capital, where King spoke so eloquently, our society has ignored its responsibility to properly educate all of its children in the city where our laws are made, and where federal judges are appointed. When the speech was given, children in schools not far from the U.S. Capitol endured a segregated school system. Following desegregation, public education was neglected for a generation, as federal and local lawmakers did little to help the children with whom they shared a city.
By the mid-1990s, the traditional public school system had become notorious for its lack of academic standards, dilapidated buildings, and careless attitude to student safety. Only then were alternative educators allowed to open new public schools. Today, 41 percent of the students enrolled in District public schools are educated at chartered public schools. These new-style public schools can shape their own school culture and curriculum, and can remain open provided they deliver improved student achievement. They have blazed a trail for higher student proficiency in reading and math; and raised high-school graduation and college-acceptance rates.
Such has been their success that they have provided a powerful incentive to improve D.C. Public Schools. But like Dr. King’s observation regarding the Declaration of Independence, the reality of education reform has yet to live up to the rhetoric.
Our mayor campaigned on ensuring equality in per pupil public funding for chartered public schools and D.C. Public Schools. This is a key provision of an important law passed in 1996 that has never been realized. Research by education finance experts show that over the past five years DCPS students received between $1,500 and $2,500 more annually than their peers in District public charter schools.
Law and social justice require that public education funds be distributed equally to every public education provider in the District on a per-student basis. The words and the sentiment are there; but we are told there are “insufficient funds” because of the District’s financial position.
Dr. King knew that it would take more than his soaring rhetoric to turn worthy ideas into results. Part of that additional effort in the civil rights movement has been sustaining various programs to achieve diversity in the work place, including affirmative action. In the District, we need to build public school equity into personnel evaluations in our city government, and into political score cards for elected and appointed officials.
Too many children in the District are waiting on that promissory note. Dr. King said: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” Our District government must give our children what is their birthright—and honor its obligation to them.
Dr. Ramona Edelin is executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools.