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MLK Day and Education Reform

Today is Martin Luther King Day, a holiday that always makes me a little bit uncomfortable. Not because I have anything but the utmost respect for King and work challenging racial and economic injustice. But because I respect him too much to be comfortable with much of how we "honor" his legacy this day.

Too often the Martin Luther King, Jr., who is lionized in our public discourse is sanitized, soft, and fuzzy, a secularized saint rather than a real man whose battle for racial and economic justice was, while nonviolent, still deeply disruptive to existing privileges and power structures and inherently political. This watered-down version of King denies the full power of his life and work while also allowing us today to feel better about ourselves than we ought. And our public schools are highly complicit in conveying this soft and fuzzy King to our children.

I'm particularly uncomfortable with the decision to make King's holiday a "day of service," on which young people are encouraged to engage in service projects. Not that there's anything wrong with any of these projects. They're nice things to do. But the progress of the civil rights movement didn't come from people working in soup kitchens, cleaning up parks, or doing similarly nice, service-y things. It came from people nonviolently but directly standing up to unjust power structures and engaging in civil disobedience. People actually broke unjust laws--and got arrested for it. Teaching our kids that this is a day about service seems to get the message dead wrong--or at least to suggest that our nation and world are no longer plagued by injustices that require more than volunteer work to right them.

But, in fact, plenty of injustice still exists in our nation and world today. Many of us who work in education reform are convinced that our existing educational system is complicit in perpetuating serious racial and economic injustices. But there's a temptation to seek to address this without upsetting any existing apple carts of power or privilege. We see this in education reform strategies that focus on more money or new programs without seeking to address the fundamental dysfunctions of our education system (we also see it among reform-y types who are unwilling to admit that some necessary reforms might require additional resources or politically dicey reallocations of resources from haves to have-nots). We've also seen it among some charter school operators and other education entrepreneurs who have sought to create effective programs in small pockets of safety but have been reluctant to get their hands dirty in dealing with education reform politics. We even see it among education policy wonks and foundations who believe we can address injustice by persuading those who currently hold power to change, rather than tackling power head-on and building alternative power bases that empower parents, children, and others who are currently disenfranchised in our public discourse. I see signs, though, that this is starting to change, in the emergence of various groups engaged in grassroots organizing and political activism around education reform. Are any of these efforts really going to build a base of empowered parents? Are they going to tackle serious inequities and pose a real threat to existing power structures? And will the ultimate results be good for the kids our education system has long failed? I don't know. But I'm at least glad that people are beginning to think seriously in this way.

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