Martin Luther King & ​​
the Ongoing Civil Rights Struggle for Equality of Opportunity in 
Public Schools

By Stephanie D. Robinson
Decades ago, in an article published by the New York Amsterdam New s on May 15, 1965, Martin Luther King wrote:


Unfortunately, Brown II “ gave much of the responsibility for the implementation for desegregation to local school authorities and lower courts who were appointed by segregationist politicians. . ." The lessons about states’ rights should always be a reminder of how racist the conservatives can be for “by 1956, 82 representatives and 19 senators endorsed a so-called Southern Manifesto in Congress, urging Southerners to use all lawful means at their disposal to resist the chaos and confusion that school desegregation would cause. No member rose to speak against it.” Silence, however, is complicity. 

In the Schoolhouse Gate by Justin Driver, the author states that “many white southerners thought the Brown decision and its focus on integration would cause the destruction of the white race. . ." In fact, President Eisenhower, who Chief Justice Warren believed supported Jim Crow before the decision was rendered, made the point of telling him that: “white southerners are not bad people. . .  They just want to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit next to big black bucks.” This type of racism (passing as sound arguments in some conservative circles) has kept many children of color from receiving a fair and equal education. 

Understanding what he was up against, MLK did not water down what he said about the education of African American children nor did he change his mind about the need for public school integration --- in spite of American racism.  He knew children were being harmed by racist state and local authorities who firmly supported and created the conditions for the U.S. "separate and unequal" public school system to exist  when he said:

     Year by year out children finish 12th grade with reading and math skills crippled at a fifth or 6th
     grade level. I shall never forget the hardship that I had upon entering college for though I had been
     one of the top students in high school I was still reading at an eighth grade level.

Julian Bond reinforced this statement when he spoke about the cause of student failure. He stated:

     Violence is black children going to school for 12 years and receiving 6 years' worth of education.

50 years later after MLK’s article first appeared in the Amsterdam News, the 2015 longitudinal scores for
African American 12th  graders showed that only 13% were proficient in reading and only 7 % were proficient in math. Unfortunately, the U.S. public school system all across the nation still underfunds schools that serve children of color allowing them to operate with fewer resources and with ineffective school officials and teachers.              

Martin Luther King's article focusing on the " Purpose of Education," therefore, remains instructive for there is still a need for school leaders and teachers to learn what it means to promote equitable practices in public schools across America. In this article he states: 

      Intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character--that is the goal of true education. The complete               education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.
These worthy objectives in 2019 include school by school funding disparities. In fact, for the first time in U.S. history --- the most recent reauthorization of ESEA (or the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015) is mandating states to report on: “ actual school by school spending.” Note: As it stands, school funding gaps show that    white school districts receive $23 billion more than nonwhite school districts.  

(Please note that at a  2016 Senate Hearing Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) (who is retiring soon) stated that it would cost 3.9 billion or a complete overhaul of state and local financial systems to equalize spending between schools, an impossible idea not worthy of any consideration (apparently) from his perspective. He abruptly left his argument there as if it was O.K. to reduce African American children to a type of invisible status that did not warrant any call for any urgent changes to these profoundly racist funding disparities. His "out of sight, out of mind view" reduces the "ESSA reporting requirement" to something that was meant to be a unmandated, nonexistent, ignored response to the urgent call for equalized funding between schools. . .  as if laws cannot be changed  --- (for this is really about the Republican control of both chambers when ESSA was passed).  His view, at the same time, shows why parents and community stakeholders must vote for elected officials who want to address the educational needs of "all" children. This type of elected official sees education as a moral issue for as MLK states in the "Purpose of Eduction" --- "Education without morals is like a ship without a compass, merely wandering nowhere. Education, hes says, should cause us to rise beyond the horizon of legions of half truth, prejudices and propaganda. . ."  In this sense, the Republicans, etc. have taken this wandering route (for decades) by underfunding the districts that serve children of color --- even though the Republicans and others, to date, have never explained the 23 billion dollar funding difference between white and black school districts.Yet, Senator Alexander also mentioned, at this 2016 hearing, that there was a huge coalition of educational organizations that were standing up against the longstanding 1970's comparability loophole, a coalition that still did not want it addressed --- from unions to state organizations --- a fact that is morally reprehensible.) 

Currently, many advocates are wondering if these ESSA “school by school spending reports” will serve the purpose they were met to serve. Still, many other advocates believe that these reports will merely serve as empty words without any action-oriented goals in place. No one knows if they will cause school officials to address school funding inequities. 

Yet, as of May/June 2019, according to Daarel Burnette II:  

       There's been little media coverage of spending disparities between schools, and few school boards appear            to be using the numbers to craft their budgets for the coming school year. . . Frustrated civil rights and              school funding supporters are pushing state education officials to better publicize the school spending                  amounts and urging journalists and local advocacy groups to do their own detailed reporting on the                    newly available data."

State officials, whose responses seem to be on par with Senator Alexander's 2016 comments, are acting as if these long-standing school funding disparities are not raising concerns about their roles as public servants when it comes to  the public's transparency and accountability needs (Here is a case in point. . .). In other words, their failure to acknowledge and address state and district decisions pertaining to school funding also means that they  are ignoring the legitimate goals and standards of the U.S. public school system  --- and are intentionally undermining its very purpose.  

But, is their dysfunction and lack of urgency in serving as true representatives of public school children in-line with their decisions pertaining to the state accountability plans (that were submitted this year to the US Department of Education)? Is it just one more sign that the very culture of states works against public school children? For instance, far too many of the  state accountability plans that were approved by Secretary DeVos were weak and vague plans --- plans that boldly ignored and continue to ignore the educational needs of historically underserved students.

Organizations, however, across the nation are speaking out against many of the state accountability plans that DeVos approved. For instance,  All4Ed is concerned that “ED has approved several state plans that do not incorporate subgroup performance into indicators and ratings as required under ESSA.” According to 74 Million: “ESSA’s vague equity provisions aren’t translating into anything meaningful in the plans. . . and the evidence-based” requirement is no longer referenced in the forms states use to explain how they’ll hold underperforming schools accountable.” The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights says that "states are not identifying schools for support and improvement." The Education Trust says that some “states are giving A’s (or 5-star ratings, or labels like “Excellent”) to schools with significant opportunity and achievement gaps.” The NAACP states that "some states do not have proficiency targets . . . or an accountability system that includes any measure capturing whether students have met the state’s grade-level standards, etc."  And, according to Mark Dynarski "states do not require schools to undertake interventions until “years have passed” and millions of students have continued to perform at low levels." (For an independent review of ESSA State Plans, click here.) 

Parents, therefore, must pay attention to the historical “lessons learned that ESSA overlooks on many fronts. For instance, ESSA is touted as a bipartisan law but it was the Republicans who were in control of both chambers of Congress when it was enacted in 2015. Under these circumstances, ESSA (unlike ESEA 1965) does not consider the education of poor children as its chief purpose, especially since the conservatives oppose “federal overreach, the equalization of per pupil spending and the "equalized spending" between schools when all is said and done. 

To support this type of strong parent and community engagement, the public must expect states to finally take the initiative to acknowledge their own longstanding history of: not only ignoring the Brown vs. Board of Education decision but many of the mandates of ESEA 1965 (and many of its reauthorizations, including ESSA). To date, states and local school systems simply do not have a proven track record  of serving children of color. An ongoing remembrance of ESEA 1965 --- as a landmark commitment to equal access to quality education --- tied to "earmarked federal funding for poor children" is, therefore, in order if not a necessity lest its purpose be forgotten (or the purpose of education that MLK spoke about is lost in translation). 

In fact, with history as a witness, U.S. public school representatives simply will not "do the right thing" or effectively implement research-based programming with fidelity for poor children unless the public is paying attention or making demands on them. In fact, in the past (or based on lessons learned) sanctions, incentives or fines were utilized to catapult them into action (remember Bush had to "fine" states all across the nation that did not develop their state standards!). But alas, these lessons have already been maligned and, thus, forgotten. That this state-based culture keeps persisting decade after decade (and even now) without any sound solutions to address the problems associated with  states, of course,  leaves poor children of color at a disavantage . In fact, the "research" on state capacity remains insufficient for the demand. In other words, the public needs proof that the states have the ability to serve all children. To date, the proof is scanty --- and, the "off the cuff," ESSA interpretations by current Republicans will never do. 

With these lessons in mind, parents and community stakeholders must realize that their voices and participation (as pro-active, co-equal participants within public school communities) represent a co-production that depends on transparency and accountability to thrive. From this perspective, they have a role to play that begins with becoming an organized presence in public school communities --- in order to keep the demand for strong “oversight goals” alive and well on an ongoing basis. They must also be the ones who make demands on their political representatives to ensure that they, too are supporting a culture of accountability in states, districts and schools. Most importantly, their involvement must allow children to know that they have not been left on their own to contend with longstanding school-based concerns, which is a pro-active stance that will make a world of differnece in the lives of children. This type of  involvement by parents and community stakeholders moves beyond the surface to dig deeper to support and identify --- contributions --- that benefit not only their own childen's educational life chances but elevate the public school system as a whole.   

Clearly, former Secretary John King tried to address ESSA’s accountability concerns but, at the same time, he also  had to confront the Republican's opposition in addressing the needs of poor children. Due to their actions the United States is now one of the few advanced nations where schools serving better-off children usually have more educational resources than those serving poor students.  This inability to distinguish between right and wrong or goals that promote inequities from those that do not tends to be based on  “ race concerns which remain a factor in determining educational and economic opportunities and outcomes. To put it more bluntly, Derek Black, a Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law and founder of the Education Rights Center at Howard university states:


​​Most importantly, in regard to the actual spending mandate, which will be implemented in 2019,” he states:


As far back as 1969, the late Phyllis McClure spoke about ESEA funding problems when she said:

     Millions of dollars appropriated by the Congress to help educationally deprived children have been                    wasted, diverted or otherwise misused by State and local school authorities.” 

Parents and community stakeholders, therefore, must also show up and  hold school officials accountable for all funding concerns since ESSA only mandates states to provide the public with a “ report” on how federal, state, and local dollars are being spent on a per-pupil basis while excluding teacher salary differences from this calculation. For years, with no logical explanation, these comparability calculations have treated all teachers as if they are equal even if some teachers are ineffective teachers.   New America states that “ED does not (even) require states to support their comparability claims with data and there is no civil rights private cause of action for aggrieved parents, thus creating little opportunity for true civil rights accountability.”

That ESSA only requires that “districts report actual spending at the school level, but only for transparency's sake, not to equalize spending” means that if stakeholders do not keeping demanding accountability from states, districts and schools then school-based inequities will continue to exist and prevent children from receiving a high, quality education. This historical lesson learned shows that parents and community stakeholders’ voices are needed more than ever to create a balanced system, a system where all voices are acknowledged.

If they are not involved, the public shool system will continue to favor  teachers unions, school boards, superintendents, principals, governors, and conservatives’ views due to power imbalances. When this type of political (elite) capture of policy decisions takes place, it can lead to limited provisions and resources being diverted from their intended beneficiaries.  Consider the case of Richard Easterlin who asked: Why are certain nations more developed than others (. . .or in this case why are certain states, districts and schools educational systems more developed than others. . .)? The response to this question can still be understood by focusing on the BRIC Nations of the early 1900’s.

For example:
      Elite capture and the policies that the elite proposed worked against a basic education for children in                 BRIC nations. In other words, “in polities with little or limited democracy, elites were able to capture                local governments and influence education policy. With relatively low per capita incomes, the                            unwillingness of most elites to engage in redistributive policymaking led to low public financing of                      primary education, as most models of the political economy of education would suggest (e.g. Ansell,                    2010).” Countries that had effective school systems, during that time period, could point to: “the                      emergence of public education in more developed economics was tied to the broadening of democracy...”

And, yet, it was assumed then (and even now), by many, that income inequality or the socio-economic status of students was and is the only culprit attached to the failure of many public schools. But, the study refutes this assumption and finds that income alone could not fully account for the observed differences in educational performance . . .  The authors argue that “a political economy framework involving public sector capture by "local elites" helps explain not only the limited overall supply of schooling in BRIC but also the variation within and between the four countries.” In other words, it was “the characteristics of the political and economic elite and the limited provision of public primary schooling that helped explain the low achievement levels. . .” This lesson   --- or lesson learned, therefore, of the BRIC nations in the early 1900’s or of unequal educational systems can be prevented and summed up this way:
     Granting larger shares of the population formal voice over education and fiscal policies prevents elites              from blocking the expansion of publically funded mass schooling. . . or an effective education for children.

In Martin Luther King’s “Purpose of Education” speech he addressed this point in a similiar way by stating:

     Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from                the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think                intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest                    menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals. 

He, therefore, also knew and said that: " noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good." Let us hope then that parents and community stakeholders will join together to hold public school officials accountable for ESSA’s effective implementation. African American parents and community stakeholders, of course, in particular ---   already know that they have never had the luxury of expecting equality of opportunity in schools unless they show up "with the hope of a brighter tomorrow," on a regular basis, to represent if not define children of color themselves. This means educational change will always require them to follow through on MLK's directive to: “sift and weigh public school concerns by discerning the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.” When the majority of parents and community stakeholders truly take on this role and also support transparency and accountability in schools ESEA/ESSA will, indeed, become a law that has the potential to serve all U.S. public schoo l students and the U.S. will finally be able to say it has the best interests of all children in mind.    

About Stephanie D. Robinson --- She is the founder of and the author of the upcoming book: Unleashing the Amazing Power of Parents & Community stakeholders in Public Schools (Strategies for promoting transparency and accountability in public school governance, discourse and decision-making). She has served as the former Statewide
PA PIRC Director (Parent Information & Resource Center located in North Philly), (which supported parent capacity building and funded all events that created and produced the "Delaware Valley P arent Information Model" and many panel discussions. P lease  refer to the C-SPAN Video Library to learn more.    She has also served as the US DOE  LSS Research Educational Lab (REL)/ Mid-Atlantic Regional CPIE Coordinator (the Consortium for Parent Information & Education ---CPIE/LSS), etc. She can be reached at or by phone at 202-534-1754.

Just about 11 years ago the Supreme Court rendered the historic decision declaring segregated schools unconstitutional. To date, this has been little more than a milestone in the legal proceedings of our nation. It has meant very little to the millions of school children daily being crippled in segregated schools in the south and the de facto segregated schools of the northern ghettos. . .
ESSA boldly presumes that states will voluntarily improve educational opportunities for low-income students despite their historical tendency to do the contrary. It has no definite equity provisions, no demands for specific student achievement, and no enforcement mechanism (ESSA places all of the power of the law in the hands of states and local school systems) to prompt states to consistently pursue equity or achievement. . . It does not specify the remedies or interventions that states must implement when schools underperform. . . . It has abandoned both inputs and outputs as levers for equality. . .mmFurthermore, states do not have to submit academic standards to the Department for review. In this respect, states’ willingness to police themselves is the only real quality check on academic standards.
For the first time in fifty years, the federal government lacks the ability to prompt improvements in student achievement and to demand equal resources for low-income students. . . Thus, the ESSA     undermines principles that have long stood at the center of the ESEA’s mission to ensure equal access to resources. . .  In particular, the ESSA weakens two equity standards and leaves a significant loophole in a third one that, in effect, exempts 80 percent of school expenditures from equity analyses. . .