Teachers At A Crossroads: Time To Heed Dr. King’s Call

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Above Photo: From livingindialogue.com

We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time.   Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1967

In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater [than at any time since the 1950s], the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms.  Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – 2017 Doomsday Clock Statement

Promoters of so-called school reform frequently exhort educators to “teach with urgency.” This slogan trumpets their supposed determination to immediately achieve educational equity without funding equitable teaching and learning conditions.  Two presidential mandates—Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race to the Top—proclaimed this righteous resolve while severely damaging public education. Now President Trump and Education Secretary DeVos plan to accelerate the destruction with more charters and vouchers or tax credits to pay for private schools.

The real urgency we face today is to finally address the systemic causes of inequality—in and beyond schools–and other interconnected threats to human survival, as Martin Luther King Jr. implored fifty years ago. With the scientific consensus on climate change and a renewed and growing threat of nuclear war, the urgency is far more evident today. Here is a key question for those of us focused on finally achieving educational justice: What would it take to provide all students with high quality education?

Advocates of corporate school “reform” consistently give this answer: great teachers. Sometimes they add: great leaders, great curriculum, and great assessments to hold everyone accountable. This begs another question: Can great teachers (with “great” leaders, curriculum, and assessments) provide all learners with the attention and support they need as well with 30 or more students in the classroom as with 15 or less? Every experienced teacher, decades of peer-reviewed research, and common sense say no. So do the billionaires behind so-called school reform when it comes to their own children, who attend elite private schools with classes of fifteen or fewer students and often two teachers.

Reducing class size and caseloads are not a cure-all, but they are necessary conditions for any significant and sustainable progress. Other necessary conditions include adequate time to prepare, collaborate, and develop professionally, many more counselors and other support staff, and adequate facilities for teaching and learning. We’re told, however, that these changes are “too expensive” and not as “cost effective” as other possible improvements. In other words, supposedly there isn’t enough money to provide poor students with the same learning conditions as rich students, but we can provide the same quality of education on the cheap. Right.

There is plenty of money in the society for endless war abroad, militarizing police at home, new prisons, and massive bailouts and tax breaks to corporations and banks. But not for public schools and services serving working class students of color. Not unless we fight for it. There’s the rub. We’re not fighting for it explicitly and effectively. Although we must continue defending against privatization and cutbacks, we must also go on the offensive. That means building a campaign to redistribute wealth from corporations and banks to fully fund public schools and services. Until we do, many parents will be drawn to anything that seems to offer their children a chance, including charter schools. We cannot defeat privatization by remaining solely on defense. And that brings us back to Dr. King’s call.

Exactly a year before his assassination, King gave his most famous speech opposing the Vietnam War. But he went much further, warning that future generations would have to march against new U.S. wars around the world unless there was “a revolution of values” to transform the system in which “profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people.”

Dr. King appealed to labor leaders to support that transformation. On May 2, 1967, he told leaders of the Teamsters and Allied Trades Council that America had reached a “crossroads”:

With Selma and the Voting Rights Act, one phase of the civil rights revolution came to an end.…  For the vast majority of white Americans, the past decade, the first phase, had been a struggle to give the Negro a degree of decency, not of equality…. White America cannot escape the demand for full equality, for economic justice, but it would like to, and the path for Negroes and their white allies is to make the nation as a whole face up squarely to the full program.

King argued that the federal government must move beyond banning legalized racial segregation and, at least, sharply step up its so-called War on Poverty:

The limited reforms we have won have been at bargain rates for the power structure… The real cost lies ahead. To enable the Negro to catch up, to repair the damage of centuries of denial and oppression means appropriations to create jobs and job training; it means the outlay of billions for decent housing and equal education.

But on the contrary, the government was cutting anti-poverty programs to pay for its expanding war, leading King to observe that “the bombs in Vietnam explode at home.” On May 31, 1967, he told the Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff:

We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together. … You can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others.

King continued through 1967 to draw these connections and to “question the capitalistic economy.” He also saw that to move from questioning to effectively pressuring the power structure to make fundamental concessions meant that nonviolent direct action “must now mature to a new level”:

The higher level is mass civil disobedience…There must be more than a statement to the larger society—there must be a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point…It must be open and conducted by large masses without violence.

In the fall King took up civil rights attorney Marion Wright’s proposal to bring thousands of poor people to Washington D.C. to demand a guaranteed annual income and jobs for all. The Poor People’s Campaign was to be a sustained, multiracial campaign of massive civil disobedience.  King’s closest advisors opposed the plan, fearing that disruptive action and radical demands would fail and alienate liberal allies.

King was murdered April 4, 1968, just weeks before the campaign was to begin. Demoralized organizers and participants soon converged on Washington, but ultimately dispersed without meaningful gains after weeks of rain, mud, and media vilification.

In the early 1970s Bayard Rustin, Jesse Jackson, and other civil rights leaders moved forward with the strategy shift “from protest to politics” they had lobbied King to adopt. They would work within the Democratic Party to win incremental reform. This strategy has failed: both major parties have moved ever further rightward since then, as racial and economic disparity have worsened.

The U.S. never spent the billions King cited as necessary to move toward full equality, but quickly found trillions in 2008 to bail banks out of the crisis they had caused. Labor leaders, including heads of my union and the nation’s largest, the National Education Association (NEA), have rejected King’s appeal to fight for “the full program.”  With their combined membership of nearly five million educators, NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), could help lead a movement to demand money for schools and public services instead of corporations and war. But they have refused.

I was among delegates at NEA’s Representative Assembly in 2009 who proposed the union support actions including strikes to demand that the trillions of dollars used for bank bailouts be transferred back to public schools and services. Michael Eric Dyson, author of a book about King’s radical legacy, called the plan “a beautiful idea” reminiscent of the Poor People’s Campaign:

I think it would be extraordinary! … If teachers would say “We are tired of both people from the grassroots not understanding our problem, and the president and the Congress and the secretary of education not understanding it, we take it so seriously we’re walking out. What will you do to match our effort?”

Hundreds of delegates attending the pre-convention panel where Dyson spoke cheered his endorsement. But the union’s national and state officials convinced most delegates that this proposal and two similar ones the following year were too expensive, illegal, and risky to pursue.

That experience illustrated NEA leadership’s unwillingness to challenge corporate power and the need to organize social justice caucuses in our local unions to take up that fight. Since then educators in many U.S. cities have done exactly that. Chicago teachers, led by a highly organized union reform caucus, struck in 2012 for “schools our students deserve” with strong member and community support. In Oakland, our union reform group has led internal organizing and alliance building with parents, students, and community members to fight for smaller class size and special education caseloads, more counselors, nurses, and preparation time, and additional resources for low-income students and communities of color. For years our district has refused to meet these demands, while spending at a rate far above the norm on administration and outside contracts and far below the median rate on instruction. But even if we force the district to reallocate spending, it will take far more money to provide all the resources students and teachers need to succeed.

Where is that money? It’s in banks and other large corporations that are privatizing public schools and services, impoverishing people, and destroying the planet.  It’s in budgets for prisons, police, and wars inflicting massive suffering here and abroad, especially on poor, black and brown folks. A tiny minority uses the wealth produced by the overwhelming majority to buy politicians and make rules that keep themselves in power.

What if unions, progressive organizations, and working people concluded that it’s finally necessary to break those rules?  What could happen if we conducted a sustained educational campaign on the need for strikes and mass civil disobedience across the U.S. to demand full funding for public schools and services instead of banks, corporations, mass incarceration, and state-sponsored violence? What will happen if we don’t?

We stand at the same crossroads King identified in 1967.  Since then both major U.S. political parties have driven policies that have worsened racial and economic inequality and militarism and have taken us to the edge of climate and nuclear disaster. Are we to continue believing that symbolic protests and returning to “normal” politics provide a realistic path to justice or even survival?  To do so ignores the historical evidence as surely as climate deniers reject science; either form of denial will lead to the same end.

Given this urgency, a few recent developments offer hope. Eight California urban teachers unions and a number of community partners have begun working together to build a movement for schools and communities students deserve. Also, in May the prominent civil rights leader Reverend William Barber announced that he will launch a new Poor People’s Campaign. He noted that “a Resistance has emerged” all over the country. Black Lives Matter, the defense of Standing Rock, and airport blockades against the Muslim ban remind us that the power of direct action is real. So is the necessity to go well beyond anti-Trumpism and to finally “face up squarely to the full program.” We won’t get another fifty years to do it.