Today’s Courier Herald Column:
January 15th was the 83rd anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. He lived just shy of 40 years, with that period plus the roughly four decades since represent about a third of our still young country’s history. No other individual from the last half century represents such a dramatic change in America and its ability to fulfill its mission and mandate. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are now real possibilities, but were just a dream when King started his ministry and activism.
The changes are visibly dramatic and swift. A country that once considered African Americans as three-fifths of a person, allowed their purchase and sale, and sanctioned separate water fountains and restrooms elected Barack Obama as President just over three years ago.
King’s last speech foresaw the changes ahead, but also foretold that much like Moses, he would not lead his people to see the promised land.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
You cannot appreciate the view from the mountain without having seen the peak from the valley. Understanding our history, including the uncomfortable parts, is key to understanding the concept of American exceptionalism. We still have our issues, but we still live within a constitutional framework that allows for the greatest amount of personal freedom and opportunity of any country on earth.
The Promised Land reference is also somewhat applicable because in many ways, we’ve also been wandering in the desert on race relations for the past 40 years. Though legal barriers to equality have been removed, we as a people tend to, for whatever reason, continue to self segregate throughout many parts of our society. This continues in our political parties, our neighborhoods, and even in our churches.
Our schools are no longer separate but equal. Many are separate and unequal. Inner city schools are dominated by children living in poverty, and are disproportionately composed of minority students. The solution is not one of money, as these same schools spend more per student than their suburban and rural counterparts.
One of the core elements of equal opportunity has been our country’s commitment to public education. We currently fail a large portion of students by trapping them in poor performing schools, and ultimately handicap their full ability to pursue happiness in the process.
Charter schools have been one solution that have been accepted across income levels and party lines. In Georgia, the resistance has come mostly from local boards of education that fear loss of funding and control, but have been embraced by parents and politicians alike.
Vouchers, however, remain highly polarized along the lines of ideology and income. They are often pushed by parents who have already left the public school system and would like to take some of their tax dollars with them. Opponents fear spreading existing public funds for education over a larger student base, effectively rewarding exclusive private schools at the expense of public schools which struggle to meet basic educational needs.
School choice advocates will need to alter their approach and audience if vouchers are to ever become part of a viable solution. White Republicans whose children are in performing schools, public or private, are not the emissaries needed to sell vouchers to skeptical inner city parents and politicians. Along these lines, Bill Cosby will now headline the kickoff event for National School Choice week at an event in New Orleans on January 21st.
Solutions must also focus on where the real problems are. If school choice advocates wish to demonstrate the power of vouchers, they should be targeted not on all students who already attend private schools, but ensure that limited experimental programs remove students from the worst, most underperforming schools. Identifying a funding source outside normal school appropriations would also likely mute critics and allow for successful pilot programs.
Dr. King moved our country forward and made sure that skin color would not be a barrier to success in our great country. For us to continue to ensure equal opportunity, we must look for real solutions to other barriers which divide us. Education combined with opportunity are our great equalizers. We must ensure that all of those among us have access to a quality public education for our country to continue to enjoy the views from the mountaintop.