Martin Luther King: A Champion for Education

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

January 20, 2020

Today, and every third Monday of January since 1986, we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

While Dr. King’s life was tragically cut short by his assassination on April 4, 1968, his passionate work around race, equity, and peace still serves as the inspiration for many today. While Dr. King isn’t widely recognized for his role in education equity, arguably due to the times, the landmark education battle of the civil rights movement took place when King was at the beginning of his career. Here at Education Reform Now (ERN), we reflect and acknowledge his belief in educational equity. Dr. King understood that quality education could advance the condition of students of color and create promising societal, economic, and cultural change. 

“The richest nation on Earth has never allocated enough resources to build sufficient schools, to compensate adequately its teachers, and to surround them with the prestige our work justifies. We squander funds on highways, on the frenetic pursuit of recreation, on the overabundance of overkill armament, but we pauperize education.” 

These words were delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in March 1964, and unfortunately, remain accurate today. Teachers are the backbone of high-quality education. However, they are underpaid and under-resourced, and their work does not receive the prestige it deserves. As a result of that, unfortunately, students in high-poverty schools are more than three times as likely to be taught by an unsatisfactory teacher. 

Statistically, teacher quality is the number one in-school influence on student achievement. That is why we support policies that promote innovation and fundamental change in teacher preparation so that teachers have the knowledge, skills, and support they need to help all students succeed.

Dr. King envisioned equality and equity in the broader social landscape. He offered an even grander vision in his 1967 address at an Atlanta YMCA (see “Martin Luther King Jr. Saw Three Evils in the World”). Where he argued that the fight for civil rights in America must shift from a “struggle for decency” toward what he called “genuine equality,” and genuine equity would require the government to abolish poverty and provide high-quality education.

While we haven’t been able to abolish poverty, and real equity in this country remains an uphill battle. We must continue to advocate for every child to receive an adequate and equitable allocation of resources no matter their race, socioeconomic status, zip code, or enrolled in a traditional district-run public school or public charter school. 

We still have a long way to go in eliminating the disparities that exist between students of different races. In honor of Dr. King’s legacy, we must continue to work towards education equity. As our President, Shavar Jeffries, has said, “As we celebrate and reflect on the life and legacy of Dr. King, it is more important now than ever to realize the value in working diligently for the arc that bends toward justice. The work around equity and opportunity are hard and long-fought, but that doesn’t mean that we give up on each other or in our fundamental belief that progress, though slow at times, always moves forward.”