Martin Luther King Would be Distressed with California’s Failing Schools

In Oakland only 8.64% meet ELA proficiency standards and only 14.2% meet Math proficiency

(Photo: Public Domain, Library of Congress)

Monday is a national holiday to celebrate the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Across the nation, tributes will be paid to the man who taught us to dream – a man who was willing to go to jail to ensure that we could–and we would–overcome. In his honor, federal, state, and local governmental offices are closed on this day. His national influence is further observed via the many boulevards, parks and libraries named in his honor. Statues of him have been erected and his portrait hangs in colleges and universities. Schoolchildren read about his life and legacy.

Rather than Gov. Gavin Newsom bloviating about slavery reparations, the greatest slavery-remnant shackle he can break to set African Americans free is to break the chains of a cycle of education failure we have witnessed in California by embracing school choice for kids trapped in these failing schools.  The Golden State has failed over and over to free African American children from the shackles of powerful special interests who fill the coffers of greedy politicians running schools to line their pockets, while mocking the very heroes we teach our kids to honor.

So many honors for King, a man who inspired us to dream.

It’s been:

• almost seventy years since the most powerful Supreme Court decision on education: Brown v. Board of Education’s sweeping end to racial segregation.

• almost sixty years since the historic March on Washington that Dr. King led. One of the march’s key demands was the integration of students in our nation’s schoolhouses.

• some forty years since release of the landmark, “A Nation at Risk,” from the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Intended as a wakeup call, the report declared that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”

So how do California’s African American students fare today after decades of a fight for equality? In education, we have failed dismally to realize his dream for African American children in the Golden State.  

Almost every year I have taken the occasion of our national holidays named for American heroes to pen a column showcasing the continued disparities of educational opportunity and attainment.  Sadly, since I first advocated for enhanced parental rights and school choice while a member of the California State Senate, the needle has not affirmatively moved on behalf of African American students.

So, on this Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday, I ask you to consider these California Department of Education facts:

Overall, the numbers of African American students enrolled in California’s public education system continues to decline.  Today there are 273,148 African American students across all grade levels—4.6% of the state’s 5,852,544 million students.

In 2015 only 28% met or exceeded state adopted proficiency in English Language Arts (ELA); only 16% in Math.  Today, those numbers have remained stagnant or even declined:  still only 29.85% met or exceeded proficiency in ELA; only 16.89% in Math.  

Stated in a more shocking way, in one decade of California spending almost half its entire multi-billion budgets in education, the learning outcomes for African American students have increased by a dismal two percentage points in ELA and not even one percentage point in Math.

So, as we celebrate and honor the legacy of yet another Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday by going to parades where politicians wave to crowds of parents, these statistics are beyond shameful.  If education is the key to the American Dream, then African American children in the Golden State have been abjectly prevented from ever attaining such.  At this proficiency rate of one percentage point improvement per year, it would take almost a century for African American children to get to the promised land of educational equality and opportunity in California.

Clearly, Governor Newsom, Superintendent Tony Thurmond—himself African American–and the Democratic-controlled California Legislature have failed California’s African American students.  Yet, we continue to name schools in tribute to Dr. King.  According to a perusal of the EdSource.org data base showing 2024 performance outcomes of all California schools, there are 20 schools named for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr– including both traditional district schools and independent charter schools.

Undoubtedly, every school should excel. But naming a school for a national hero should bear an even greater expectation that all who enter that school should excel.

Yet, overwhelmingly, schools named for Dr. King fail to meet the academic benchmarks established by the state for English and Math proficiency. For example, the Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Elementary School in Sacramento—just blocks from the State Capitol where the Governor, Legislature, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the State Board of Education all meet to decide education policy—only 25.44% meet or exceed English Language Arts (ELA) standards, declining almost three percentage points from the prior year.  While Math proficiency significantly increased this year, it’s still only a dismal, depressing only 25.15%.

From north to south, schools named for Dr. King post similar scores:  At the MLK Elementary school in El Centro only 32.63% of students meet or exceed ELA standards, while only 26.69% reach Math standards.  

At the San Bernardino MLK Middle School learning outcomes significantly decreased in one year.  Today, only 14.6% meet ELA standards; only 7.4% meet Math standards—a shameful decline of almost nine and four percentage points, respectively!

Undoubtedly, the absolute worst performing is the MLK Elementary school in Oakland where only 8.64% meet ELA proficiency standards and only 14.2% meet Math proficiency.  

Certainly, standouts exist:  the MLK Middle School in Riverside shows that 77.3% of its students meet or exceed ELA proficiency and 44.83% do so in Math.  At Berkeley’s MLK Middle School, 74.33% meet ELA proficiency; 64.62% meet Math proficiency. Parents, accompanied by state officials and civil rights leaders, should immediately visit these schools to understand what they are doing to produce such dramatically opposite results from other schools.

We can no longer simply attend feel-good ceremonial events on yet another Monday holiday and then allow our children to return to schools the following day named for a national hero while we  allow and tolerate educational failure and persistent underperformance to continue. Any school named for Dr. King needs to become truly worthy of bearing his name.

And let’s not stop there. California has three schools named for former President Barack Obama, one for Former First Lady Michelle Obama, and Rosa Parks – the mother of the civil rights movement.

Not one of the handful of schools named for President Obama sees students scoring above 14.83% proficiency in ELA, or 9.57% in Math—among the lowest proficiency rates anywhere in California.  These are schools named for the former President who is often reported to be the most admired man in America and who championed education reforms, including Race to the Top, to motivate schools across the nation to seek better learning outcomes. And the one school named for the former First Lady and potential 2024 presidential candidate, Michelle Obama, only 27.72 are proficient in ELA, a meager 27.72% in Math—declining from the prior year.

What of the mother of the Civil Rights Movement—Rosa Parks herself?  There are seven schools named for her. Most fail her. For example, the Rosa Parks Elementary School in San Diego reports only 32.51% meet/exceed ELA proficiency rate while only 22.63% meet/exceed in Math.  Even the highly lauded charter school network, Aspire, reports its Rosa Parks Academy a shameful learning outcome where only 15.91% meet/exceed ELA proficiency rates, and only 11.93% meet/exceed Math proficiency.  With such dismal learning outcomes, one must wonder why that charter school has not been closed for academic failure?

Yet over in Corona and in Berkeley, those districts honor Rosa Parks with significantly better ELA and Math proficiency outcomes.

The one school named for Harriet Tubman is in San Diego where only 27.44% are proficient in English Language Arts—a drop from the already anemic 32.82% from just the year before. Proficiency in Math standards increased—but only by just over one percentage point.  Today, only 19% meet Math standards. Were Ms. Tubman alive today, she most likely, would advocate for the launching an Education Underground Railway to rescue students from that—and other schools named by politicians to “feel good” about civil rights and diversity, yet which consistently fail on a day to day, year to year basis.

Public education—which devours almost 50% of the entire California state budget and has done for years—needs not only change, but a complete overhaul.  Tinkering with budget formulas is not sufficient. Bowing to the most powerful political interest in California—the California Teachers Association—which signs, seals, and delivers education policy to the Democratic Party and its elected officials wanting to move up the political ladder can no longer be stomached. 

Click here to read the full article in the California Globe

History of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday

This space has annually honored the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. on his designated holiday and we do so again with a holiday related brief collection of articles. In the past we have discussed King’s legacy or simply reproduced his famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This piece will relate a short history of the holiday while Joel Kotkin’s article will reflect on the cities where African-Americans are doing the best economically.

The Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday first was celebrated in 1986, three years after President Ronald Reagan signed legislation establishing the holiday. Reagan said on the day he signed the bill, “Dr. King had awakened something strong and true, a sense that true justice must be colorblind, and that among white and black Americans, as he put it, “Their destiny is tied up with our destiny, and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom; we cannot walk alone.”

c18048-3Representative John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, introduced the original bill seeking a holiday commemorating the life and works of Dr. King. The bill in the senate was co-sponsored by Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, a Republican (who recently passed away at the age of 95.)

When the Conyers bill reached the House floor in 1979 it was defeated by five votes.

Six million signatures were gathered on petitions to Congress in support of the law. A newly introduced bill by Indiana representative Katie Hall finally passed the House of Representatives in 1983 by a 338 to 90 vote. The holiday bill sponsored by Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy passed the Senate two months later, 78-22.

Not all the states adopted the King holiday at first after President Reagan signed it into law. Some states found other names to designate the holiday such as Human Rights Day or Civil Right Day.

The battle over adopting the King holiday in Arizona made national news. Despite the holiday being established first by executive order then rescinded and the legislature adopting the holiday, an overwhelming vote by Arizona citizens rejected the holiday. This action caused the National Football League to move a scheduled Super Bowl from Arizona to Pasadena. In 1992, Arizona voters reversed action and supported the King holiday in another ballot referendum.

In 1999, New Hampshire changed the name of the holiday from Civil Rights Day to Martin Luther King Day, making the New England state the last state to have a holiday named after Dr. King. A year later, South Carolina became the last state to authorize the King holiday as an official holiday for state workers.

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