Commentary

Lessons from MLK: The school-choice battle gets intense.

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
June 11, 2003

I recently disclosed that I might be getting arrested later this year. It’s not something I relish. My wife is concerned. My friends and relatives think I’m too extreme. But the more I look at education in this country, the more I think that extreme tactics are needed to combat a public-school system that is more concerned with feeding itself than in making sure children get educated.

Desperate times require desperate measures. When I hear advocates say that school choice is the new civil-rights issue, I wonder how much they believe it. Despite the talk, I haven’t seen them adopting the tactics of the civil-rights movement. It will take action, not armchair radicalism, to convince policymakers that parents really want more educational choices.

There’s no better place to look for guidance on the strategy of the civil-rights movement than the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written 40 years ago by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In response to clergymen who had criticized him for leading demonstrations in Alabama, King outlined the steps for nonviolent social change.

Step One: Information gathering. King wrote that those who want to make social change should start with a “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist.” In 1963 America there clearly was injustice against blacks. It is as clear today that many public schools fail to provide citizens with a quality education (not a few of whom are black Americans).

A collection of the facts reveals that, according to Education Week’s annual survey “Quality Counts,” 55 percent of blacks and 53 percent of Hispanics graduate from high school, compared to 76 percent of whites. While 34 percent of white 8th graders achieve at the proficient level on the math portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 5 percent of blacks and 10 percent of Hispanics do so. According to the Koret Task Force, which released a report as a follow-up to the landmark 1983 study, “A Nation at Risk,” reports: “U.S. education outcomes measured in many ways, show little improvement since 1970.”

Step Two: Negotiation. At this point, King said those seeking social change should start discussions with the status quo. The issue at hand for King was politicians and lawmakers who had broken promises to blacks.

Today, people from King’s generation have seen decades of educational mediocrity accepted. Fannie Lewis, a city-council member in Cleveland, Ohio, says she has been “trying to fix the public schools in Cleveland since 1951.” In school districts around the country, parents have complained about schools that have failed to educate their children. Some of them who don’t want to negotiate with the system have fled to private schools or decided to try home schooling.

Step Three: Self-purification. This step asks participants to consider what their level of personal commitment will be. As King would say: “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” and, in a different speech, “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.”

Parents today don’t have to die for educational freedom. But what are they willing to do to demonstrate their demand for opening the system to competition?

Step Four: Direct action. The civil-rights movement used several types of direct action: sit-ins, demonstrations, and boycotts. King said he agreed with his critics that negotiation is better than direct action, but that, ironically, it is direct action that leads to negotiation.

The beauty of school choice is that it is a form of direct action. Once parents have school choice, they will no longer have to negotiate or renegotiate with a recalcitrant status quo. They can just exit, as they do with any other organization that provides inadequate services.

It must become more painful for politicians to vote against school choice. To get school choice, however, will parents and school-choice advocates take direct action, such as calling or visiting Congress? The Committee on Government Reform will be holding hearings on June 10 — The presence of parents and school-choice advocates would send a signal that talk of reform is not business as usual. In addition, will advocates organize and participate in rallies? Pass out fliers? Or perhaps get more radical, by holding sit-ins at the Board of Education or the offices of congressmen opposed to school choice? Perhaps hold demonstrations at the worst public schools to highlight the failures the rest of us ignore because we don’t have children in those schools? D.C. residents might consider sitting-in at the office of D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Such actions would mean, however, that some of us could get arrested.

School choice is said to be a civil-rights issue. Furthermore, some school-choice advocates compare choice opponents to the white segregationists King was fighting. The twist is that the white segregationists of yesteryear prevented blacks from leaving second-class black-segregated schools for better ones, and today it is said to be the school-choice opponents who are blocking the exits of lousy inner-city schools.

As I recently reread King’s Birmingham letter, I noticed a few other parallels with today’s school-choice opponents.

For example, the segregationists of the past often complained about “outsiders stirring up trouble.” Today, many school-choice opponents in the nation’s capital grumble about nonresidents who support choice.

They complain that school choice is coming from outsiders. D.C. Board of Education President Cafritz, for example, said a few months ago that she is concerned that vouchers are “lobbying by people whose goals are different than the people who live here.” Cafritz should understand why others who may not live in D.C. want to get involved. In May 1985, with her then six-month-old son, Cafritz was arrested while leading a Mother’s Day apartheid protest in front of the South African embassy. She saw a cause thousands of miles away from her home and got involved. Cafritz said then, “As a mother, I can’t help but feel terrible about what is happening to the children in South Africa.”

Today, there’s a cause much closer to home, which some have called educational apartheid. Her willingness to put herself on the line for a cause thousands of miles away from home could help explain why she recently shocked the D.C. political and educational establishment by reversing her opposition to vouchers coming from the federal government. After you’ve put yourself on the line by getting arrested, why would you fear admitting that you’ve changed your mind?

Others in the district say that school choice must be a bottom-up movement led by the city. Yet they know full well that the parents most likely to protest have already fled the system for private schools or put their children in charter schools.

King complained 40 years ago that blacks were told, as many parents are told today, to wait for change. King said that “wait,” translated, meant “never.” Likewise, promises of improvement for D.C. schools have been stacked on top of previous promises of improvement.

Over the last 20 years there have been several efforts to bring school choice to the nation’s capital. In each case, opponents have complained both about outsiders and the timing of the action. In 1981, Rev. Ernest R. Gibson, chairman of the D.C. Coalition Against Tuition Tax Credits, said: “It amazes me that outsiders come along and try to destroy our public schools just at a time we are making progress.” More than two decades later, Gibson’s words are echoed by school leaders, who claim that the district’s scores are improving, improving faster, and in a more systemic way. “Give us a chance,” they say, in statements that sound similar to those issued two decades ago.

As King wrote about those telling him to be patient, “I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.” So it is today, as parents are told to be patient.

Towards the end of his Birmingham letter, King notes that his tactics had been described as “extremist.” But instead of running from the label, King wrote that many of history’s greatest people were extremist. “So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be,” said King.

It is a question we should be asking today, 40 years after King wrote his essay while sitting in jail. King obviously had learned what Frederick Douglass had said a century earlier: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress… . Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Blacks have never had the luxury of sitting on the sidelines while those professing to be their representatives discuss solutions.

Do parents and school-choice advocates expect the status quo to yield power without a fight? Do they expect those with power not to resort to various delaying tactics? Do they expect not to be derided as extremists who hate the public schools?

If the issue of improving education is as important as school-choice advocates say it is, parents cannot leave the issue to educators with vested interests in the current system.

School choice won’t be seen as urgent an issue as civil rights until more parents and school-choice advocates treat it that way — through their words as well as their actions. So, are you ready to really fight?

Casey Lartigue Jr. is an education-policy analyst with the Cato Institute.