There is something distinctly unsettling about seeing people invoke Martin Luther King Jr.'s name to support the current effort to privatize large swaths of American public education. It has recently become customary to claim that "education is the civil rights issue of our time." True enough, for no one can succeed in our society without an education. But the people who make this claim insist that public school students should be enrolled in schools run by for-profit corporations, hedge-fund managers, and earnest amateurs, who receive public money without any public oversight. There are now about 5,000 such schools, called charter schools, across the nation, and President Obama wants many more of them. As it happens, about 98% of these schools are non-union; their teachers work 50-60 hours each week, which could not happen if they were union schools.
Today's education "reformers" think they are advancing a civil rights agenda by creating charter schools, advocating merit pay, enshrining standardized tests of basic skills as the highest measure of achievement, closing neighborhood schools, and getting rid of unions.
Was that Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream? King fought for equality of educational opportunity, not for a "Race to the Top" for the lucky few. He fought for fundamental fairness and justice for all, not for special treatment for the few. He never promoted private management of public education. When he was assassinated, he was defending the right of workers to join a union. It is impossible to imagine him standing alongside the business executives and politically powerful who demand more standardized testing, more privatization of public schools, and more schools in which teachers have no organized voice.