This is the week that we honor Dr. Martin Luther King with a national holiday, commemorating his birth and the revolution he brought to our country and the rest of the world with non-violent social change. As such, it’s also a time to take a moment to reflect on where we are, how far we as a people have come, and where we have to go.
The natural inclination for a political columnist would be to note that recently (and very quietly) a statue of white supremacist Tom Watson was removed from the grounds of the Georgia Capitol. It would be easy – perhaps a bit too easy – to use this space to argue that Georgia’s Republican leaders would be wise to solidify a growing movement and ensure that a statue of Dr. King quickly replaces it.
But then, that would be a short column. Frankly, it needs to happen. Dr. King, despite having never been elected and not a native Georgian, used Atlanta as his base camp when he changed the country for the better. He is one of us, and is now and forever a positive figure that deserves to be enshrined as a symbol of hope in action.
The problem with symbols is that, while powerful and long lasting, they only matter when they represent a hope for the future, lest they become a trite relic of the past. As such, the real honor that is needed for Dr. King is not one of bronze or not something that can sit comfortably on a prominent lawn. It is one that must continue his dream.
Dr. King dreamed of a nation that would judge our children on the content of their character. A nation where there would be equal opportunity. A nation that would afford any child born rich or poor, black or white, the opportunity to achieve the dream – the American dream.
We like to tell ourselves that this is possible today. But still, a child born into poverty is significantly less likely to be able to than a middle class or wealthy peer. The differential is not skin color, but of access to a quality education.
A free country with economic mobility requires equal opportunity. Too many of our children born today in economically depressed areas are trapped in schools that are ill prepared to place them on the track to success. This can change, but it will require us to do more than what we are currently doing, and to do things quite differently.
The answer until now has been to throw money at the problem. Fifty years of the war on poverty shows that poverty is winning. We can do better.
Instead of listing platitudes we need only look to Louisiana for tangible examples of what is working. A bit over 8 years ago hurricane Katrina forced New Orleans to virtually start over with many things. They did not miss the opportunity to rebuild a new way to educate their children. The process began with turning their system into a real charter system. The results are staggering.
The principles of reform were clear. Parents decide which schools they want their children to attend. Principals and teachers run their schools as they see fit – up to and including extending the school day if they deem it necessary. The central office serves primarily as an administrative support resource.
Teachers, principals, and schools are held accountable. Not one school that has failed to meet performance expectations has had their charter renewed. Not one.
Schools that fail to attract enough students close. It is a true market for education, and this market only rewards success.
The result is that New Orleans City School students, recently at the bottom of state statistics, now test at the Louisiana state average. A system that is comprised almost completely with minority students is expected to have students testing at the statewide average of their white counterparts when results arrive this year.
Statues are nice and honorable things to remind us of where we have come from. But if we want to take care of where we are going, it is time we give more than lip service to inequalities in our delivery of public education. That is a dream that we can make into a reality.