From the Vault: MLK and God’s schools

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Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in redefinED on Aug. 26th, 2013, as part of a series to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We are reprising it as the nation prepares to celebrate what would have been King’s 90th birthday.

Coons
Coons

I grew up in a Minnesota city of 100,000 with – in my time – one black family. My introduction to the reality of public school segregation came in 1962 as – now at Northwestern in Chicago – I agreed to probe the public schools of the district on behalf of the U.S. Commissioner of Education. The racial separation was there as expected, but there was one big surprise; I was astonished to find enormous disparities, not only in taxable local wealth – hence spending – among the hundreds of Illinois districts, but even in individual school-by-school spending within the Chicago district itself. I wrote about both problems, sprinkling research with “action” including marches and demonstration both in Chicago and in Selma (prior to the main event there).MLK snipped

My interest in deseg politics had already provoked a law review article on the risks of anti-trust liability for King et al. who were planning boycotts of private discriminators. On the strength of that essay, Jack Greenberg, then director of the NAACP Inc. Fund, invited me to meet with King and his lieutenants at dinner in Chicago to discuss the question. We spoke at length – mostly about boycotts but also about schools. By that time I was already into the prospects for increasing desegregation in Chicago, partly through well-designed school choice.

I won’t pretend that I recall the details of that evening. What I can say is King’s mind was at very least open to and interested in subsidies for the exercise of parental authority – which clearly he valued as a primary religious instrument. I took my older boys next evening to hear him at a South Side church and, possibly, to follow up on our conversation, but he had to cancel. We heard sermons from his colleagues, some to become and remain famous. I did not meet King again.

King’s “Dream” speech does not engage specific public policy issues – on schools or anything else. Essentially a sermon, it is a condemnation of the sins of segregation and an appeal to the believer to hear scripture, with its call for indiscriminate love of neighbor, as the life-task of all who recognize the reality of divine love for us – his image and likeness. It is purely and simply a religious appeal that declares the good society to be one that rests upon benign principles that we humans did not invent but which bind us. I don’t know King’s specific understanding of or attitude toward non-believers, but this document clearly rests the realization of the good society upon its recognition of our divine source and its implication of the full equality of all persons.

Given that premise and the Supreme Court’s insistence upon the “wall of segregation” in the public schools, plus – on the other hand – the right of parents to choose a private religious education, the logic is rather plain.

Private schools live on tuition, and many American families couldn’t afford to enroll then or now. If low-income families were to exercise this basic human right and parental responsibility enjoyed by the rest of us, government would have to restructure schooling to insure access to an education grounded upon, and suffused with, an authority higher than the state. Given the economic plight of so many black parents, the only question would be how to design the system to secure parental choice without racial segregation by private educators.

And that possibility was to be the principal crutch of “civil rights” organizations in hesitating about subsidized choice.

Of course, many of their members were public school teachers who wondered about their jobs. Still, in the early 70’s, both the NAACP and the Urban League were sufficiently interested in parental choice to engage the usual suspects, including myself, to describe solutions to the apparent problem. In 1971, Steve Sugarman and I published a book which was a first crack at designing a structure that would preserve the integrity of the private school while assuring non-discriminatory access. Others made similar proposals. The civil rights groups still dallied.

One political difficulty was media domination of the argument for choice by free-market libertarians who fretted at – and opposed – every suggestion that would in the least diminish private school control of admissions. Their narrow focus forfeited a good deal of centrist support. But the more fundamental problem was the teachers’ unions, which froze at the prospect of competition and gave the civil rights groups plausible (and tangible) reason to balk. One example: in a long private conversation, Cesar Chavez expressed to me his regret that the Farm Workers couldn’t sign on for a popular initiative for school choice in California, because the UFW would risk the annual 200k they enjoyed from the AFT.

The idea thus remained largely a specialty of the market enthusiasts for 30 years. My guess is King could have changed all this, precisely because of his theological focus. The problem has not gone away, and we miss him.

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