Today is Martin Luther King Day to honor the man who did so much to bring people together. We have also been through several weeks of media presentations with Arne Duncan discussing the renewal of Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). And, the movie Selma debuted in theaters across the country. What do all those events have to do with each other on this MLK Day?
The way we bring children together, you could say, is the way we determine how America’s citizens will treat each other in the future. I believe no one knew that better than Martin Luther King. And, the way to help all children learn not just how to be tolerant of one another, but how to enjoy each other, and our rich backgrounds and personalities, is through our public school system—a public school system that opens its doors to everyone.
Arne Duncan in a recent speech to a DC school to hype the new U.S. Department of Education report “America’s Educational Crossroads: Making the Right Choice for Our Children’s Future” began his speech talking about President Lyndon Johnson’s education bill, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). HERE
Duncan cites President Lyndon Johnson who said at the signing of the bill: I believe deeply [that] no law I have signed, or will ever sign, means more to the future of America. Think of those words in regard to King’s dream.
Duncan, using those words to allude to the changes made to NCLB and to his and the Obama administration’s renewal of the bill, is carrying out some deception. NCLB is no ESEA, and Race to the Top certainly doesn’t embody ESEA either. That Duncan has to argue with the country about the overarching role of testing, which has pushed meaningful instruction out of the classroom, and where schools are destroyed in order to be privatized, is an indicator that something went terribly wrong with ESEA, especially with the writing of NCLB.
The original ESEA, that came about during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, was never designed for draconian school reforms which currently face children in their public school classrooms today. The bill was designed to give children in poverty hope through their public schools!
How far have we come?
While this country protests back and forth about the terrible sad incident concerning Michael Brown, can we all not at least agree that it is a disgrace that a student like Brown, in America today, graduates from a school that cannot even afford commencement gowns for every student? HERE
Wasn’t ESEA to lift public schools out of poverty?
The last few weeks have also seen the film Selma debut in theaters across the country. I have not yet seen the film. I intend to see it, yet there has been much controversy over the role of President Lyndon Johnson in the Civil Rights Movement. Many believe Johnson’s role was not correctly depicted in the film.
The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who praises the movie, also notes about the Johnson distortion: Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it. Julian Bond who helped organize protests in Selma at that time, also criticized this distortion on CBS News. He calls President Johnson a key ally for King.
So why, when there is so much racial strife, can we not grasp for some hope in the interconnectedness of King and Johnson for the country?
As an educator, I have learned, as history unfolds, that no President has ever done more for education and children, and their public schools, than President Johnson. I say that knowing well that there are many critics of Johnson in other arenas. He was known for his sometimes abrasive, bold personality. And, the Vietnam War did much harm to his legacy. This haunted him for the rest of his life. Right-wing conservatives will most likely bristle at his entitlement programs.
But Martin Luther King, Jr. had an ally in Johnson and it is monumental that so many education programs that benefited all of us came out of the Johnson administration. As a people we should be building on those programs—not tearing them down. I think that is what both men working together would have wanted.
It was in those programs that the real work of addressing poverty took place, ultimately lifting the poor to be able to continue fighting for King’s dream. And when it comes to real change in education, Johnson, along with King, appeared to hold the good of children and the nation’s poor, in his hands, and in his heart. For this, we should be truly grateful for both men.
President Johnson, most likely with King’s support, took action—real action. He got Congress to put money into programs that would actually help poor students and improve schools.
Those who knew him believed much of Johnson’s desire to help the poor came from his experience as an honest-to-goodness teacher, and it appears this experience touched him deeply.
Recalling his year as a teacher of poor Mexican children in Cotulla, Texas, he once told Congress: It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance—and I’ll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it. For More HERE
How many policymakers today have actually worked with children in the classroom and have seen upfront what they need?
President Obama and Arne Duncan’s new ESEA will never match President Johnson’s ESEA, or the hope King had for our children, unless they take giant steps back to the past, drop the corporatization of public schools into segregated charters, and really focus on what’s best for children.
Educator Larry Cuban, when a group of professors were asked who they thought was the best education president, said President Johnson. He added:
Presidents Ronald Reagan, H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have converted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of the Great Society from a poverty-based federal “entitlement” program (mainly through Title 1) into a standards-based accountability program that expanded testing and established rules for acceptable academic performance touching every one of the 14,000-plus school districts that received federal dollars. No longer a poverty-reduction effort, ESEA is now a testing and regulatory machine that identifies and punishes failing schools. Go Here for more.
While some accountability might have been justified, it has gone too far. NCLB and RTTT don’t just punish schools. The bills punish the teachers who struggle to actually do the work in those schools and the students themselves. However well-meaning the school reformists believe they are, the reforms they push onto schools are not reforms to bring children together. They are harsh and demeaning—too cold—and not designed to lift children out of their real life circumstances.
They do not listen to parents. While the focus is on standards, there is so much more left out. Little children can’t even get to know each other on the playground!
Of course, all of the above presidents, in their own way, did some part to help when it comes to poverty, or they spoke of change with the right intent. But it was President Johnson that made the most changes. And I might add…he could not have done it without a receptive Congress!
Here are some of the education accomplishments of the Johnson administration:
· The Johnson administration is known as promoting the “Great Society” for a “War on Poverty,” and an end to racial injustice.
· LBJ passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) committing the federal government to help local schools around the country and that included fixing and building new public schools.
· The Higher Education Act of 1965, PL89-329 created most of the federal student financial aid programs we have today including the Educational Opportunity Grant Program and the Guaranteed Student Loan Program.
· Higher education legislation provided scholarships, grants, and work-study programs for those who worked hard no matter how poor their families.
· The TRIO programs involved the Higher Education Amendments of 1968 and included Upward bound; Talent Search; and Student Support Services. Additional federal programs were created later.
· The Johnson administration also began the job corps which involved vocational training.
· Upward Bound arose from the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The program still assists high school students to develop skills and motivates them to do well in school. It lends academic support and social and cultural enrichment to students whose parents did not attend college and who live in rural areas. Here is a list of those who benefited from Upward Bound: Oprah Winfrey, John Quiñones, Angela Bassett, Jose Hernandez, Troy Polamalu, Kenny Leon, Donna Brazile, Patrick Ewing, Henry Bonilla, Gwen Moore, and Viola Davis.
· Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) began in 1965 and was later changed to AmeriCorp in 1993. It is a national voluntary program to fight poverty. It is considered a domestic version of the Peace Corps.
· The Johnson administration anticipated the needs of Hispanics and other immigrants with bilingual education, which today serves four million children in some 40 languages.
· Special education law at that time helped millions of children with learning disabilities. You could say President Johnson paved the way for Public Law 94-142 providing all children with an Individual Educational Plan and a Free Appropriate Public Education.
· To date, more than 24 million preschoolers have been through Head Start programs in nearly every city and county in the nation.
Lyndon Johnson helped Martin Luther King, Jr. put civil rights and social justice squarely before the nation as a moral issue. You may disagree with the policies of President Johnson, but you cannot say that he did not try to do what he felt was best for children and the poor. He not only shared King’s dream, he put it into action.
Both of these men and their connection is what we all should strive for as a people.
What would Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Johnson think of the draconian reforms in education today? I think they would be terribly disappointed. I think they would tell us to drop the pretense and get back to the right intent. Our children and the nation, cannot wait any longer. We must continue what they started for the benefit of all our children.