In his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. declared,

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

MLK decried equality for children of all races, and his monumental contribution to the realization of this dream should forever be remembered. However, it seems that some education reformers in the U.S. have already forgotten the words of King. Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, and Florida have all implemented new race-based standards into their public education systems with the approval of the Department of Education. While No Child Left Behind did divide children into subgroups based on ethnicity, it did not set different standards according to those subgroups. The race-based standards in these four states do not alter curricula or test questions, but they set different goals for percentages of students expected to pass based on the racial subgroups.

For example, Alabama’s “Plan 2020” expects 91.5 percent of white students and 79 percent of black students to pass math tests in 2013. The highest expectation is for Asian/Pacific Islander students at 93.6 percent and the lowest is for Hispanics. The Alabama Federation of Republican Women has been very outspoken against Plan 2020, and its president Elois Zeanah wrote in a recent statement, “Isn’t this discrimination? Doesn’t this imply that some students are not as smart as others depending on their genetic and economic backgrounds?” Supporters of the plan argue that these standards will not be permanent, but that subgroups with lower expectations will be required to improve until the rates are made equal by 2018. In response, many have argued that even if the gaps in the subgroup percentage goals are required to close by 2018, the plan creates bad incentives for teachers that will work against these expectations. Teachers’ performances are reviewed based on the number of their students that pass, and so they will focus on the students belonging to the subgroups with higher goals in order to maximize the outcomes of their performance reviews. Sharon Sewell, the director of Alabamians United for Excellence in Education, said in a written statement, “You know what this will do. Teachers will stop teaching those kids with the lower cut scores. They will, out of necessity, teach to the top cut scores.”

Regardless of whether or not these percentages of students expected to pass have proven to be accurate in the past, setting different goals based upon them is immoral. These race-based standards essentially tell some children that they have lower odds of succeeding because they have a different skin color. Regardless of national statistics, children of all ethnicities can be held to a universal high standard and pushed to excel. By marginalizing students based on their race, we debase their dignity as individuals and demean their humanity. African American orator and social commentator William Pickens declared,

“To cheapen the lives of any group of men, cheapens the lives of all men, even our own. This is a law of human psychology, or human nature. And it will not be repealed by our wishes, nor will it be merciful to our blindness.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream that future generations of children would be judged by their character, not race. Race-based standards in education reverse the goal of a color-blind society.

  • Curt Day

    But there are two other parts of King’s dream. They are economic justice and militarism. He said that all three parts, racism, economic justice, and militarism are interrelated. Regarding economic justice, remember that he was in Memphis to support striking garbage workers when he was assassinated. And late in his short life, King came out strongly against the Vietnam war calling the American government the “greatest purveyor of violence.” In addition, he saw that the more attention we paid to war, the less attention we pay to the poor.

    So if we are going to talk reverently about King, and King opposed racism, economic justice, and militarism because he saw them as interrelated, shouldn’t we be doing the same?

    • Andrew Orlovsky

      You are right about MLK, that why it bothers me when conservatives point to him as an icon. He was a great man in several respects, but his view of economics was very flawed. It seems the the welfare state, just takes away the incentive for couples to get and stay married. Its interesting that prior to the 1960s, black marriage rates were actaully higher than whites. Now marriage has become obsolete in many black communities (and whites are quickly catching up). The vast majority of our social problems in this county can be traced to kids growing up without fathers.