Tennessee Education Association

Great Public Schools for All Students


Lessons from Dr. King

By TEA President Beth Brown 

We recently celebrated the birthday of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a racial and social justice advocate who continues to inspire the world long after his 1968 assassination. As an English teacher, I love introducing my students to Dr. King’s pursuit of equity and his masterful use of the English language. 

As I took time on the recent holiday to reflect on Dr. King and his teachings, I contemplated a metaphor from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Dr. King condemned America for defaulting on the promissory note of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence; instead of guaranteeing that all men would be guaranteed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, America gave African American citizens “a bad check, a check which [came] back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” 

Dr. King then boldly proclaimed his refusal to believe that the country couldn’t, in fact, afford African Americans freedom and justice. He refused “to believe that there [were] insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

A promissory note. A promise within the country’s founding documents. A promise not kept.

This sounds all too familiar.

Our state constitution promises that the Tennessee General Assembly “shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.” However, when I consider the fact that our state ranks 45th in the nation for education funding while maintaining a $6.7 billion cash reserve, I feel much as Dr. King felt in 1963. 

It feels like the state has defaulted on a promise when a kindergarten teacher cannot get $107 to purchase unit starters for his students.

It feels like the state has defaulted on a promise when a sophomore English teacher cries at night because she isn’t trained to deal with the emotional trauma that impedes her students’ learning.

It feels like the state has defaulted on a promise when a highly trained and experienced educator takes home less than $20,000 a year in salary.

On that day in August 1963, Dr. King reminded those in attendance of the fierce urgency of now. I offer that same reminder.

For the students sitting in school buildings with leaky roofs and no heat, there is a fierce urgency.

For the educators paying for classroom supplies out of their own pockets, there is a fierce urgency.

For the school districts making difficult decisions due to chronic underfunding, there is a fierce urgency.

The great Dr. King also said, “the time is always right to do the right thing.” To the Tennessee General Assembly, I say it is right to fund Tennessee’s public schools to at least the regional average. And to all Tennesseans, I say it is right to join us on Monday, March 16th, as we rally for the funding our schools deserve.

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