Note: This is part of a forum on Education Reform’s Race Debate.
Conservatives think it’s a problem to include social justice issues in the reform movement, because it threatens to splinter coalitions by introducing divisive racial and social issues. But ground-level reformers who engage in communities have discovered an important truth: the next wave of school reform won’t succeed without bottom-up consent of the governed, and that isn’t possible without a transformative focus on social justice.
The feared divisions are already with us. On each school day, 8 million black children enter classrooms led by teachers who often do not reflect their cultural or ethnic background, in schools that are insufficient to the task of educating them. This longstanding problem has roots in America’s racial history of white supremacy, and this country will never be whole until it acts justly by reckoning with its own past. Part of that work must involve the elite, mostly white industry of analysts, writers, consultants, nonprofit executives, and other professionals who conduct the business of rethinking education.
A Broad Agenda
The moment is ripe. The era of top-down reform, with resource carrots and accountability sticks, is ending. The movement has plateaued, and the community must thoughtfully chart a way forward. While one segment has coalesced around a broad social justice agenda, including education, housing, economics, and criminal justice advocacy, a contrasting group of center-right leaders say the presence of “social justice warriors” will marginalize their voices. They warn that school reform has long benefited from bipartisan collaboration and a values-neutral focus on issues we can all support, such as accountability, data-driven instruction, and parental choice.
There is evidence to support that assertion. Consider the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001—a brilliant piece of bipartisan politics and sweeping policy, which resulted in better student data and more accountable school systems (even if improvements in student outcomes were modest). Its passing meant that policy elites had sidelined political differences and produced a plan that promised high-quality teachers in every classroom and evidence-based interventions to end chronically failing schools.
Yet, when it came time to renew that law 13 years later, the once strong and pragmatic bipartisan alliance had changed. Pro-accountability Republicans yielded to states’ rights advocates in their party and joined a different Democratic constituency, teachers’ unions, to advocate a retreat. To varying degrees, that retreat is now playing out all across America, in blue states like California, Washington, Massachusetts, and New York, and in red states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Indiana.
Fueling a Backlash
The same retreat is happening in communities across the country. In polls, parents and community members generally support reforms like school choice, charter schools, and improved teacher quality. Yet communities targeted for school reform initiatives routinely resist these initiatives. From Detroit to Los Angeles, from Camden and Newark to Minnesota and Massachusetts, pushback to school reform is ending critical programs, with material consequences for families and children. In Oakland, Calif., a plan to include charter schools in the district’s enrollment system, which would have benefitted parents in desperate need of educational options, was scuttled amid protests and charges of racism. In New Orleans, leaders are on the verge of “returning” oversight of independently run charter schools from the Recovery School District to the Orleans Parish School Board. This isn’t a sign of an OPSB that has miraculously improved, but rather of long-simmering hostility within affected communities who feel that school reform has been done to them rather than with them.
There is no future for education reform that continues to ignore the fact that new schools must live within the context of communities. In those communities there are people who want to be stakeholders in the major institution of government that serves them. They want a voice. They want meaningful democracy. They want real choice—the kind that comes with voting power. For these people a colonial model of education reform, whereby culturally insulated policy elites devise educational hierarchies for other people’s children, will continue to be a thing to resist.
If there is any real threat to education reform it isn’t the inclusion of advocates who believe deeply in social justice, it’s the inability of cultural fundamentalists to realize there is no future in their own supremacy.
Chris Stewart is director of outreach and external affairs at Education Post, former executive director of the African American Leadership Forum, and author at the Citizen Ed blog.