In observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day earlier this week, we are publishing this editorial from Dr. Howard Fuller, a prominent civil rights leader and education scholar, and a former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools.
In the United States of America, we know that there are the haves and the have-nots. Those who have, have the power to choose and those who have-not, are mostly impacted by the choices made by the powerful. In this country, it is low income and working class people, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color, who typically find themselves on the “have-not” side of the room.
Dr. Howard Fuller is a Distinguished Professor of Education, and Founder/Director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Immediately before his appointment at Marquette, Dr. Fuller served as the Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools June 1991 - June 1995, as Milwaukee was opening its first charter schools.
They have not adequate jobs, housing, health care, social services and quality educational options for their children. All of the things people need to make “freedom” real they don’t have or have at a level that makes freedom for them an illusion. As a Black man I have lived and witnessed this reality for my people.
I understand and feel the pain that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described in this famous passage:
The central quality in [Black peoples’] life is pain—pain so old and deep that it shows in every moment of [our] existence. It emerges in the cheerlessness of [our] sorrow [ful] songs, in the melancholy of [our] blues and in the pathos of [our] sermons. Black people while laughing [are shedding] invisible tears that no hand can wipe away. In a highly competitive world, [Black people] know that a cloud of persistent denial stands between [us] and the sun, between [us] and life and power, between [us] and whatever we need. (Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? pp. 109-110)
As a race of people, we know the pain of being told to sit in the back of the bus. We lived the humiliation of having to step to the street when white people were walking on the sidewalk. We know what it is like to be told you are not qualified for a job that you train others to do. We have internalized what it means to not have our very lives matter. The pain is real and it is deep.
There is no way to truly measure whether one reality of our existence is more painful than another. But clearly near the top of the list is seeing our children being miseducated, undereducated, dropping out of school or being pushed out. The pain of knowing their lack of education will be one of the critical factors that will consign them to the lowest levels of American society for the rest of their lives. It’s a pain that none of us, not one of us should allow to continue for another day.
There are no easy remedies for this pain. There are no miracle solutions out there to solve the educational problems that far too many of our children experience. The reality is Black children, particularly those from low income and working class families need as many different options as we can create to give them even a sliver of hope to change the trajectories of their lives. They need effective traditional public schools, quality public charter schools, access to private schools, support for families that home school. Their families need the power to choose, the power to find the best learning environment that they can for their children.
As Black people, we should never put our trust in only one way to do anything, least of all only one system to educate our children. We should always fight to maximize our options in America. Our history has shown us that we should have allegiance not to systems but to our continuing struggle to be truly free. The truth is public systems have oppressed us and private systems have oppressed us. None of them are sacred.
Therefore, it is our duty to demand systems that educate our children to the highest degree possible. It is our duty to fight every day to give low-income parents more levers of power to be used to fight for the educational needs and interests of their children. By giving low-income parents an opportunity to choose learning environments, public or private, that might work best for their children, we will increase the children’s chances of becoming socially and economically productive citizens.
So as we pause to celebrate, honor and remember Dr. Martin Luther King, we must remember that he was a Drum Major for Justice for the least powerful of us. The fight for parent choice is but one more battle in that continuing struggle. We must get up every day fighting on behalf of poor Black children to eradicate the pain they feel when they fail, because we as society continue to fail them.
Black people and those who would be our allies must be in constant pursuit of levers of power that will give these children the tools they need to engage in what Paulo Friere called the “practice of freedom”- the ability to transform their world. The reality for the children from low income and working class families is, education will guarantee them nothing. But we can guarantee them they will have nothing without it. The struggle must continue!
The Brown Center Chalkboard launched in January 2013 as a weekly series of new analyses of policy, research, and practice relevant to U.S. education.
In July 2015, the Chalkboard was re-launched as a Brookings blog in order to offer more frequent, timely, and diverse content. Contributors to both the original paper series and current blog are committed to bringing evidence to bear on the debates around education policy in America.