- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2008


On April 3, I visited Memphis, Tennessee for the first time in my life. Like many Americans, I view Memphis, despite all of its charms, first and foremost as the place where they killed Martin Luther King Jr.

Quite ironically, I was asked to come to Memphis by New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein to participate on a panel with several luminaries such as D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, former Milwaukee Superintendent Howard Fuller, former New Orleans Mayor and National Urban League President Marc Morial and Democrats for Education Reform Executive Director Joe Williams.

Recognizing the significance of the 40th anniversary of the assasination of Mr. King, the Rev. Al Sharpton asked us all to discuss the whether the right to a quality education amounted to a civil rights issue in this country.

On that question, most of us agreed that the right to a quality education is a civil rights issue and we all bemoaned the lack of urgency found in many leaders to change the status quo in education.

In addition, we all offered our views on how to make education really work in America. Consensus was found in calls for more accountability, increased authority for school leaders to hire and fire based on merit and the need to find prospective teachers who come to the profession looking to fulfill a mission as opposed to doing a job.

More noteworthy than our panel discussion was the symbolism of us being in Memphis discussing education in conjunction with the anniversary of Mr. King’s death. Our discussion and the topic of how to make education work for every American begs the question, ‘what would Mr. King say about this?’.

Clarence B. Jones, longtime confident and attorney of Mr. King, recently released a book in which he discussed some of today’s most challenging issues and offers his thoughts on how Mr. King would frame and discuss these issues if he were alive today. Titled “What would Martin Say?” Mr. Jones’ book takes on topics like the Iraq war, immigration and race relations. Interestingly, education is not discussed in the book. That being said, now 40 years later, one can’t help but wonder how Mr. King would respond to the realities of education today.

Bear in mind that the civil rights movement got its legs by challenging inequities in educational opportunities for African Americans. First through the legendary NAACP Legal Defense Fund court challenges, which led to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, then by way of the courage of students like the Little Rock 9 in Arkansas and James Meredith in Mississippi, fighting those disparities in education — served as the pivotal rallying point for a people systematically denied their basic rights of citizenship.

Indeed, it was hoped that the Brown decision, which declared that separate but equal education offerings had no place in this country, would ultimately ensure that all children would have equal access to a quality education.

Today, 54 years post-Brown, most children in this country, particularly low income children of color, do not receive the quality of education that they deserve. So, in the wake of these realities, what would Martin say? Taking liberties I offer three approaches that Mr. King would likely take in addressing today’s current shortfalls in education: First, Mr. King would not be afraid to challenge the status quo. One of Mr. King’s enduring legacies was his fearless willingness to confront established institutions that did not serve citizens well.

Today, in education circles, the status quo is protected by all of the beneficiaries of the education establishment. I believe that Mr. King would aggressively ‘call out’ the education cartel and challenge their unwillingness to change. Similar to the arguments he raised in his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’, where he directly chastised fellow clergymen who were criticizing activist clergy engaged in fighting racism and segregation. Mr. King would not shy away from rebuking unions, school boards, administrators, elected officials and others who have failed to deliver on the promise of a quality education for our young.

As he did in his speech the Drum Major Instinct, Mr. King would remind the education elite that “like the sons of Zebedee, the greatest among you shall be your servant”; that service first is more important than status quo preservation. He would not blink at telling them what few have the courage to say today.

Second, Mr. King would support innovation and creativity in our schools. While a student at Morehouse College, Mr. King understood the need to maximize on one’s learning potential. He wrote that the “function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society.” Mr. King would frown at the one-size-fits-all cookie cutter approach used by most schools in educating kids. If he were here today, he would celebrate the work of Teach for America, the New Teachers Project, New Leaders for New Schools, Building Excellent Schools, the Broad Fellows and many other entities that excite new and improved ways to recruit, train and deploy school leaders.

Mr. King would applaud the notion of school choice and the emergence of charter schools. He would view these innovations as forms of community empowerment not currently seen among parents in most neighborhoods.

In short, Mr. King would champion all innovations that put parents and their children’s interests truly first — far above those status quo interests that now reign supreme.

Finally, Mr. King would put more faith in our children. At his core, despite the challenges of his time, Mr. King was a man of hope. Found throughout his greatest speeches from “I Have a Dream” to “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Mr. King spoke positively about the future and optimistically about our young.

Mr. King would castigate the subtle and overt suggestions made by many today that some of our children don’t have the capacity to learn. This mindset directly reflects the culture seen in many schools and it needs to change. He would chide all of us for not listening to students more and would encourage settings designed to facilitate better exchanges between students, teachers and parents. Isn’t it ironic that most of today’s discussions on education reform are devoid of the ultimate end user’s perspective? Would Martin really say all of the foregoing? Is this foolhardy speculation? Of course, no one can be sure. I do know that I was powerfully moved on my way to the Memphis airport at 5:30 am on April 4th. People were already gathering by the Lorraine Motel in anticipation of the day’s activities. Some were in tears.

As I stared at the balcony where King was shot, I thought about much that I have written in this article. On this we can all agree: as it relates to how we educate children today in America, Martin would not be pleased.

Kevin P. Chavous, a former member of the D.C. Council, is a partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal and a Distinguished Fellow with the Center for Education Reform.

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