I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. (Yes) There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. (Yes) And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. (Yes) But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. (All right) It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?” (All right) These are words that must be said. (All right)
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. August 16, 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?”
On January 16th, The Washington Post ran a story by Lyndsey Layton about a new report finding that slightly more than half of all American public school students now come from officially low income families. The headline stating those children come from “poor” families was slightly misleading as qualifying for reduced lunch does not require that a family be at the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) which is $23,850 for a family of four. Families qualify for free meals at school at 130% of the FPL ($31,005 for a family of 4), and they qualify for reduced lunch at 185% of the FPL ($44,123 for a family of 4). However, the reality is that almost half of our public school students live in poverty, near poverty, and low income conditions. This has dramatic implications for them and for the schools in which they study.
Poverty acts as a third rail in American policy discussions, and it often feels that recognizing the reality for people who live in poverty or near poverty is immediately treated as an attack on American ideals of a meritocratic society. Reality, however, remains reality, and the deep impacts of poverty upon young people are known. The 1997 Princeton Study is nearly 20 years old and clearly demonstrated the health, cognitive, educational, and behavioral differences that can be attributed to growing up in poverty. More recently, the 30 year long Baltimore study reported how intensely stubborn poverty is and how unlikely it is for a child born into poverty to move into the middle class or higher. Recent research also notes that in addition to long known advantages of higher income families such as educational resources, a poor child who does “everything right” is still barely MORE likely to be economically successful that a rich child who drops out of school – and both are equally likely to be in the lowest quintile of income earners:
As equally troubling as these findings is the difficulty in any prospect of fixing them by current opportunities. While going to college remains a viable way to maintain economic position for most attendees, it is not because wages for such graduates have been rising to meet inflation or a job market demand for such workers. Wages for current college graduates is not much higher than it was in the mid-1980s, but the wage premium for a college degree has grown because of the collapse of wages for workers without a college education:
In addition, the lower middle class, historically an important rung on the economic ladder, is not merely struggling; iis largely stay afloat only because of federal transfer programs that take the edge off of their stagnant and falling wages — even as they tend to pay the largest marginal tax rates of all income groups. The conclusion here is one that has only recently pushed into margins of the mainstream: it is extremely difficult for individuals and families to move up the economic ladder when several rungs have been sawn off…and individuals and families who slip from the lower middle rung to the bottom have few opportunities to regain security.
All of which makes our current educational “reforms” staggeringly galling, immoral even. Reformers have been touting for years now changes to our educational commons that involve turning as many neighborhood public schools in charter schools as possible, measuring all success and failures in school by standardized test scores, and attacking the workplace protections of teachers as the only way to “guarantee” that every child has an excellent teacher. In doing so they literally ignore all the ways in which poverty’s deprivations impact school, and they place upon public school all of the responsibility to boost students’ economic fortunes. Unexamined? Tax and trade policies that make it possible for just 4 hedge fund managers to earn more income in a single year than every single Kindergarten teacher in America combined. Corporations whose business models do not include paying full time employees enough money to avoid going on public assistance. Wages for most workers that have barely moved in real purchasing power since the mid-1960s. That concentration of income means that 10% of income earners now make more than half of all income in America. Education “reformers” demand that “fixing” that should rest entirely upon America’s education system — even as their allies in state capitols around the country have played budget games to keep from raising taxes on the wealthy. In New York State, that amounts to billions of dollars of year that Albany pledged but never delivered to local public schools.
Only in America would education “reform” be millionaires (Campbell Brown, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein) working for billionaires (Whitney Tilson, Rupert Murdoch, Eli Broad, the Walton family, Bill Gates) to convince poor and lower middle class communities that the problems in education and economic opportunity for their children rest entirely upon the barely middle class teachers in their local schools.
Professor Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University notes that those same “reformers” have taken up the mantle of civil rights in their demands that school be responsible for providing all the opportunity for children in poverty — usually as cover for schemes that privatize more and more of our educational commons. Dr. Williams takes issue with their adoption of Dr. King for their cause:
For King, the Beloved Community was a global vision of human cooperation and understanding where all peoples could share in the abundant resources of the planet. He believed that universal standards of human decency could be used to challenge the existence of poverty, famine, and economic displacement in all of its forms. A celebration of achievement and an appreciation of fraternity would blot out racism, discrimination, and distinctions of any kind that sought to divide rather than elevate people—no matter what race, religion, or test score. The Beloved Community promoted international cooperation over competition. The goal of education should be not to measure our progress against the world but to harness our combined intelligence to triumph over the great social, scientific, humanistic, and environmental issues of our time.
While it seeks to claim the mantle of the movement and Dr. King’s legacy, corporate education reform is rooted in fear, fired by competition and driven by division. It seeks to undermine community rather than build it and, for this reason, it is the ultimate betrayal of the goals and values of the movement.
This observation is especially important today on the date set aside for reflection on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and on the work that is left unfinished from his movement. One of the most glaring unfinished task today is the poverty and near poverty that afflicts over half of our students in public education. Accompanying that is the coordinated campaign of deflection and misdirection by our current generation of education “reformers” who want to pitch community members against each and against public education while the policy makers and the oligarchs who influence them most heavily continue to ignore the wishes of bi-partisan majorities in the electorate.
It is well past time that we revoked their appropriation of Dr. King’s mantle. It belongs with those who want our nation to finally confront poverty, not with those who blame public school for the decisions of the powerful.