Education Justice

Long time readers of this blog may have noticed that, somewhere over the past year, I started referring to our work as an “education justice movement.” That’s an important distinction from simply an education advocacy movement, or even a grassroots group supporting public schools. It’s a distinction particularly worth noting today, as we celebrate and remember Martin Luther King, Jr.

So why education justice? I can trace my own switch to the use of this phrase back to a series of conversations I had last spring with different community leaders. After attending (and filming) our Rally for Public Education back in February, Kent Bey invited me to be interviewed on his cable-TV show with students from his Stand Up Now (SUN) Network. Kent speaks about his work with young people in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood in terms of education justice and used the term repeatedly while we were on the air, pushing me to think about how I was framing my own comments.

A few weeks later, the Women & Girls Foundation of Southwest PA invited me to be on a policy panel discussing various aspects of the state budget. I found myself talking about the impact of state funding with poverty, housing, hunger, and other activists who all spoke about their work as social justice. I was particularly struck by the way La’Tasha Mayes of New Voices Pittsburgh articulated her work on reproductive justice. La’Tasha is a graduate of women’s studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where I was teaching, and I invited her to guest lecture in my Intro to Feminist Theory course.

By this time, I was regularly using the term education justice to describe our work, with its focus on equity; addressing structural and historical barriers such as poverty and racism; and emphasizing the goal of great public schools for all children. But as La’Tasha taught my students the basics of reproductive justice (what she calls “R.J. 101”), she also taught me to re-conceptualize education justice as a sort of E.J. 101. So what is education justice?

1.  It’s a name. Education justice combines educational rights or public education advocacy with social justice. Public Education + Social Justice = Education Justice.

2.  It’s a social change movement. It’s not just about supporting public schools, or advocating for resources (though these are important things). Education justice is about bringing about larger social change so that every student can get a great public education. It’s a movement, not a single organization. There are leaders, but no one leader. And it’s grassroots, at its most effective when led by the community, especially those communities most impacted by budget cuts, historic inequities, school closures, and efforts to privatize public education.

3.  It’s about students and communities. Education justice affirms individual students and their everyday experiences, while also connecting schools to their communities. It places children in the context of their families and neighborhoods. Education justice insists that we consider the whole child, and that we re-frame schools as the centers of communities. It connects the health and strength of communities to the well being of students and public schools.

4.  It’s a theory. Education justice shifts our thinking, moving us beyond budget battles and the latest education reform fad of the moment. Education justice acknowledges what women’s studies calls “intersectionality” – the way in which social identities such as race, class, and gender overlap and must be understood together. We academic types also call these power hierarchies or interlocking systems of oppression. In essence, education justice forces us to deal with the complexity of education as a social issue, as well as a public institution.

Education justice also recognizes human rights as the basis for its claim. In other words, education is not simply needed because it’s the foundation of our political system, or democracy, or because we need to prepare students for complex 21st century careers (although you can make strong arguments for all of these). Education justice rests on a more basic principle, tied to our existence as human beings apart from political or economic structures. It stems from Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by the United Nations in 1948 following World War II, which reads in part:

“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. … Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Thinking about our movement in this way also forces us to consider what the conditions are for achieving educational justice. We have talked about all students having access to a great, local public school with a rich, culturally relevant curriculum; full arts programs; athletics; small class sizes; librarians, social workers, and counselors; high quality and well supported teachers; equitable and adequate resources; the reduction of high-stakes-testing; and the elimination of the school to prison pipeline, among other things. Shifting the paradigm like this also encourages us to think about what the goal of education itself ought to be.

Education – and education justice – is far more than higher test scores or career readiness. In 1947, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself described “The Purpose of Education”:

“To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no moral…We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.”

Sixteen years later, Dr. King was sitting in a Birmingham jail when he wrote some of his most famous lines about justice. Wise words for us to consider as we think about education justice:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” [Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963]

2 thoughts on “Education Justice

  1. In my corner of the ‘J’ movement, we’re reflecting on Dr. King’s legacy by watching “At the River I Stand”, a remarkable documentary about the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that drew King to the last battle of his life. The folks at California Newsreel have made the film available online for free viewing to Pittsburgh justice seekers until the end of January. Go to and enter the password LOVETHYNEIGHBOR (all caps), which was chosen to honor PIIN’s 2014 campaign to end inequality in our city. It takes an hour, and I promise you’ll learn something important about King, our country, and J.

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