Does Black Lives Matter belong in education reform? A private debate bursts into public view
June 2, 2016
By: Elizabeth Green
A private debate about the role of race in the community of people who call themselves “education reformers” lept into public view this week. The (ongoing) conversation is worth reading.
Marilyn Anderson Rhames, a black journalist and educator, launched the debate with a piece in the Education Post about her experience at the NewSchools Venture Fund’s annual conference earlier this month in San Francisco. The conference (which I attended) is one of several annual gatherings of the philanthropists, school officials, and nonprofit leaders who make up the so-called “education reform movement,” dedicated to improving schools, especially for poor students. But it was the first of those where Rhames felt what she called “a sense of belonging.”
The conference, she wrote,
acknowledged that the education reform agenda cannot be called a “movement” until those most harmed by inequality are leading it. Moreover, it was the first time I have seen my White allies and funders admit their limitations and take a backseat to leaders of color. Black and Latino speakers gave voice to educational policies and politics that keep them and their low-income students stuck in subordinate roles. They energized attendees to take their seats at the table.
On Wednesday Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and who is white, wrote a piece criticizing the conference as representative of a “leftward lurch” that does not include what he called “conservative ideas.” Rhames had specifically praised the conference’s echoes of the Black Lives Matter movement, including panels and speakers on race and buttons passed out with the phrase “Stay Woke.” Pondiscio wrote about the conference:
“There were moments when I wondered, ‘Are we going to talk about anything but personal narratives and how terrible structural racism is?’” asked this attendee, a senior executive at a national education nonprofit. “When are we going to talk about education?”
Rhames replied yesterday in this post. She wrote:
If you call yourself an urban education reformer and you find yourself asking, “Are we going to talk about anything other than personal narratives and how terrible structural racism is?” then the chances of you successfully delivering educational equity to these poor children living in Chicago is zero.
These kids don’t spend a lot of their time talking about racism; they are too busy playing indoors to avoid random bullets that ring like doorbells in the ghettos that our city politicians redlined just for their kind.
I didn’t hear the left saying “fix structural racism first” before we can fix schools, as you report. I heard them saying that we cannot fix schools if the same racial hostility that permeates society also thrives within our own education reform organizations.
According to Rhames’ first piece, NewSchools Venture Fund said some conservative backers had pulled support away from the organization as it put race and class under the spotlight.
The CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, Stacey Childress, chimed in to address the description in a comment:
over the last couple of years, fewer center-right and conservative folks in education have been attending our Summit, and I’m concerned about this fact and want to work on it. Efforts to re-imagine education will take all of us, and a bi-partisan coalition will be more powerful if we can hold it together while staying true to our purposes and following the lead of Black and Latino leaders in the work.
Update (Friday, May 27): A long and still growing list of white leaders who identify as education reformers have drafted an open letter supporting NewSchools Venture Fund’s stance. The letter argues that their reform coalition “has a problem”: its leaders are disproportionately white and from backgrounds of privilege. They write:
Those of us signing this letter are some of those white leaders. We must admit the extraordinary flaws and shortsightedness in our own leadership for letting the field become so lopsidedly white through the early 2000s. In under-representing the communities that we hoped to serve, particularly people of color, in the leadership and decision-making processes of reform, we created a movement that lacked the ability to drive durable change. A movement of innovators and technocrats will never have the intellectual and moral power of a movement created by, and led by, the communities most affected by inadequate public schooling. And while there is an important role for allies to play in advancing the work of school improvement for poor students and students of color, an unrepresentative group will lack the critical insight and creativity that diversity and inclusivity bring to addressing complex problems.
The letter, published on the website of Justin Cohen, who led the group Mass Insight Education, also challenges Pondiscio’s argument that the type of conversation about race NewSchools hosted excluded conservative political views:
Believing that the people most directly affected by educational inequity should have an outsized voice regarding the potential solutions is not a political stance. A true movement for improving schools must embrace the leadership of the communities we hope to serve, and elevate—not ridicule—the ideas of the leaders of those communities. That doesn’t mean that we need to suddenly rebuke everything that Pondiscio and his anonymous sources believe, but it does mean their perspectives must live alongside the stated needs and objectives of the communities whose lives we wish to value in our work. Just as it was always a false choice between “fixing poverty” and “fixing education,” so is it a false choice between abolishing institutional racism and improving schools.