Race is a red herring in the battle for better schools

[T]here are a myriad of strategies out there that ostensibly can make a difference for our children, but no matter which ones we pursue, their potential impact will be diminished if we do not find ways to empower poor parents to be able to exercise influence on the nature and direction of their children’s education. For me, the height of hypocrisy in America is to hear people whose children are taken care of, to oppose choices for poor parents.…I hear Clinton and Gore and all these people get up, talking about why we got to protect the existing system. Where do they send their kids? How can a teacher tell a poor parent, “I would never put my child in this school that your child is in, but you ought to keep your child here”? If it’s not good enough for their children, how in the world is it good enough for anybody’s children?

            –Howard Fuller, 1998

Howard Fuller’s famous, inaugural “Change the Complexion of the Room" speech was delivered on the occasion of the Center for Education Reform’s (CER) fifth anniversary. I had invited Howard precisely because I thought he’d “school” the growing education reform movement about why they should pay much more attention to recruiting black leaders to be partners in the education reform movement

That speech would also launch the Black Alliance for Education Options (BAEO). Howard wouldn’t mind me saying that I introduced him to a few of BAEO’s original board members (including Pennsylvania State Representative Dwight Evans, who was one of the many people of color I had helped to forge new, bold coalitions of strange bedfellows that would create the nation’s first charter school and school choice laws).

The center also had late Wisconsin State Representative Annette “Polly” Williams on its founding board. Throughout its twenty-two-year history, CER has always looked to people of varying ideologies and race for board and staff leadership—people like Donald Hense, Kevin Chavous, and David Hardy. Our board members also lean more left than right. Only one-third would actually consider themselves politically conservative (I’m one of them.) After the hanging chads, when Bush v. Gore had finally been decided at the Supreme Court, our two most senior staffers arrived the next day with black armbands. We were respectful of their loss, and we went back to business. One is still a leader in our space.

Why am I bragging about my diversity pedigree? In light of surprising attacks on Robert Pondiscio’s attempt to challenge a growing orthodoxy reflected in recent reform events and pronouncements, I wanted to get my qualifications out of the way before someone might consider responding to me as some did to him—with attacks on my values, my commitment to justice, and my heart.

Those responses to Robert’s piece are curious. While I’m gratified that those who consider themselves part of the education reform “ecosystem” are debating it so seriously, I’m alarmed at those—like Chris Stewart—who have dismissed his writing as the reaction of a white guy faced with losing his patriarchal place in history. Indeed, his reaction makes Robert’s point precisely—that a focus on race as the primary issue we must address is simply divisive.

The foundation of education reform did not begin with race or class. In her vocal and powerful advocacy for the Milwaukee voucher program, Polly Williams reminded everyone that, while she had long been a committed member of the Black Panthers, it was the power of choice that would finally begin to change the trajectory of racial and income division in her community. She said that integration and equity follow education, not the other way around. If you make it about race, the only thing you’ll succeed in doing is reminding people that you belong to one.

I thought about Polly when Robert (whom I don’t know well at all) called me to solicit my opinions. I heard from his words genuine concern that the broadening collective of education reform advocates may be spending more time letting societal dysfunction dominate our conversations than focusing on how to fix a persistent education crisis. It’s worth mentioning that despite all of our combined efforts, educational attainment is flat if not declining in far too many communities that are predominantly minority. One wonders why we’d talk about anything else.

Education does not get fixed by beating one’s chest over race and income. Education advances for the downtrodden when we provide for the creation of great new schools—and from the competition that ensues as a result. I was gratified that Alex Johnston zeroed in on the importance of school choice in his blog about this growing conversation. It’s not only why we have education reform; it is the foundation of it.

Let’s start with Washington, D.C. In the 1980s—years before anyone ever talked about replication and scale, and during a time when crime and isolation were the norm—local leaders’ efforts paved the way for the economic prosperity, educational improvement, and recession-proof environment the city enjoys today. Take a walk by the Minnesota Avenue Metro station today. Within a few blocks sits Thurgood Marshall Charter SchoolFriendship’s famous Ed Tech campusExcel Charter for Girls, and others; you’ll find a contrast of epic proportions.

I was one of the people advocating that we insert the frank “conversation” about race, class, and social justice into our work was in Washington, then and now. I witnessed firsthand the civil but tension-filled efforts of black education reformers who led the fight to make their city’s educational offerings exceptional. There wasn’t any speechifying over race and disparities; there was hard, clear, and direct advocacy with local and national actors to eradicate educational inequity in rooms more diverse in power, income, and race than we often see today in education reform. Back then, the only people wringing their hands about race were the traditional civil rights leaders, whose organizations opposed—and largely still oppose—school choice.

While I’m truly enamored with Stacy Childress and gratified that she wants to add “hard” issues to the reform agenda, those who have actually experienced hand-to-hand combat on those issues know that the people who want to insert race and class into the equation are usually those who want to unravel workable coalitions. Virginia Walden Ford, a black woman most responsible for getting Congress to enact school choice in the District, was accused of being white, a pawn of the right, and not truly committed to civil rights. Where were today’s frank conversationists when that was happening? Howard talks of the same in his book No Struggle, No Progress, as do scores of lesser-known battle-fatigued warriors who rarely have time to show up on the conference scene du jour.

While I’ve never felt isolated at any event, I imagine that some of the people who reported their concern to Robert were wondering where on the agenda were the powerful advocates and stories that provide similar hope today. Want to talk about racism? How about a discussion on coalescing with others to beat back the forces of educational darkness?  People like Randi Weingarten and Diane Ravitch fight to keep charter school caps and force far too many children—unintentionally or not—into failing education institutions. Instead of debating an immediate solution to that, those outside of reform’s emerging social justice wing probably felt like they were sitting through academic conversations that, while worthwhile and important, didn’t address that fierce urgency of now.

The beauty of the education reform movement was that we could come together in rooms smaller than an average office and not know where anyone stood on the “big” issues. Pro-life or pro-choice? Second Amendment supporter or gun control advocate? Best president: Clinton or Reagan? Didn’t know, didn't care. We were in it together. I learned that Joe Nathan was almost a socialist (feeling the Bern, Joe?) at what must have been our tenth meeting together, at New Jersey pioneer Sara Tantillo’s house, when he asked me if I actually believed in supply-side economics. (We decided not to go there).

In those early days, I would no more stand up and boast of my convictions on social or economic issues than expect the next guy to do so. At an early New Schools summit, I bonded with Johnathan Williams, Steve Barr, Mike Piscal, and others like them. They were my go-to guys at any event, and I learned a great deal from each of them. Perhaps most importantly, they believed social justice came from creating great schools, which required great charter laws. We didn’t talked about race. We talked about injustice, the status quo, the opposition, and the need to do something about it. And we talked about our kids—who was getting married, and how we could help someone get a job.

There was a valuable, unwritten code that differences were unimportant as long as our common bond was superior to all of it. The clarity of our goal—educational choice—made it possible for us to come together when nothing else mattered except creating the best possible opportunity-focused charter school or school choice law. We were David; our opponents were Goliath. Because of it, we won more battles in the first nine years of the movement than we have in the past fifteen. And yet the latter years have occurred amidst the formation of hundreds of groups and confabs, as well as billions more in philanthropy. It’s mystifying.

Some would say that it’s because the money isn’t going to those who are doing the hardest work of all, since it takes time to cultivate local leaders and the best messengers for targeted communities. Consider that Fuller’s Black Alliance for Educational Options has had to scale back dramatically. That is an organization that educated and challenged and converted thousands of people of color over the years to the cause of school choice. Their events were inclusive too. When I received the Chairman’s Award, I stood and held hands and sang “We Shall Overcome” with black Republicans and Democrats. I didn’t feel isolated because the focus of every BAEO meeting was never on issues of race, class, and poverty; rather, we concentrated on how to mitigate the baleful effects of all three. Those events always focused on helping “our” kids succeed. From that standpoint, race was a constant—but not racism.

As Howard Fuller writes so eloquently in his book, which should be required reading if you want to earn your reform membership card, “Education reform is one of the most crucial social justice issues of our time, and I will spend the rest of my days fighting for my people, most especially those without the power or the resources to fight for themselves.”

Howard is one of many of our pioneers who also agree that there’s an important history we aren’t teaching those we seek to attract to our work. A generation of reformers have come and gone who don’t know what John Chubb did; what Edison Schools was; that No Excuses was actually penned by a Heritage Foundation author; or that KIPP became a network thanks to charter school legislation. We are quickly losing the history and the cause. That’s why, despite all the people and money and groups that exist now, a Diane Ravitch can run a Cami Anderson out of office.

And there’s the rub. Most of us who put improving education ahead of poverty—or race, or social justice, or whatever you care to term it—believe that the foundation of solving inequity is educational choice. Choice gives power to people who don’t have it. It lifts all boats, provides a pathway for social mobility, and eradicates the kinds of distinctions that, as Robert reported, have made people uncomfortable at recent reform gatherings.

Because the task of achieving choice at scale is beginning to sag under the weight of so many issues, I was excited that Robert was tackling this issue. I have struggled to isolate the reasons, to solve for the decline in our successes. Sure, NSVF has hosted conversations about fixing the Washington State charter law, but how many people actually realize that that law was weak to start with, narrow in scope, and unlikely ever to lead to the creation of more than a dozen schools the way it was constructed? What about a session devoted to how we can have hundreds of charter schools, not ten, in Washington State?

If we want to talk about equity, we might consider analyzing how to fight harder—together—to enact a charter law in Alabama that would create more than ten pilot schools over the next ten years. Outraged by the injustices all around the Mississippi Delta? It’s not enough for TFA to send corps members down there; what’s really needed is new schools.

Education reform was and is about creating a brand-new power equation that gives consumers, not producers, the power. Jay Greene strikes a difficult but true chord when he writes that technocrats are the new masters of education, dictating how parents will get the power to engage in the education of their own children and which research or standards are deemed appropriate to guide policy decisions. While everyone seems to concede that parent voice is critical, our movement is in serious danger of hearing only its own voice.

The views of those closest to the kids, rank-and-file parents and educators, see a very different world than the one being discussed in our Twitter feeds (which they don’t read). There are battles in their backyards daily, and when we take time to find them, we find a rich garden of active and engaged players—including many minority parents—who are eager to engage politically. Want to help race and class? Try going into Omaha and meeting with Ean Mikale, who will pitch vouchers as a cure for injustice.

But that’s not who most are talking to. Most are talking to the elite, such as the amazing leaders of exceptional CMOs. These folks are incredibly valuable in and of themselves, but they would not exist had it not been for the sweat equity the Virginia Walden Fords of the world put into creating the very best charter school laws in the country. The best advocates are servant leaders, putting the people who are most important on the front lines while we arm them with data, stories, support, and strategy. When Hartford School Board President Thelma Dickerson wanted to help forge a charter law, no one with power or money paid any attention. She took her case to a freshman Republican state legislator, Tim Barth, and their partnership would push the final legislation over the finish line. Like Polly Williams, Thelma had had enough of the “fix-poverty” movement. Our kids will never win if we wait to fix poverty, she assured me as she proudly walked me through the school she would help create. We have to fix education first.

Those are the real warriors—men and women who not only understand race and class, but lived it. There are newer, younger exemplars we can all look to as well. But most can’t afford to fly to our events, or even take the time to attend. They don’t get the millions of dollars some of our groups get. But honestly, they often deserve it more. They are the ones doing the hard work, but because they have fewer resources, they are overlooked.

It’s time to talk about winning permanent victories. When I saw Oakland Superintendent Randy Ward being celebrated at one NSVF summit for accomplishing so much in so little time, I commented to my friend (and Friendship Schools founder) Donald Hense that as good as he and the other panelists were, the changes they created leave their districts as soon as they did. Years later, I would urge the people who were cheering Adrian Fenty not to settle for changes to contracts alone; instead, we needed codify in law everything we wanted to achieve. I also frequently remind people that without school choice, the District’s school leadership wouldn’t have been able to be half as ambitious. Michelle Rhee often told audiences that had it not been for the pressure created by school choice in the District, she would not have been able to do what she did—paving the way for Kaya Henderson to make the work permanent (though she still fights uphill battles daily).

Our best school leaders come and go, but unless we spend the time enacting permanent, liberally written laws that provide power to parents, there will be nothing to ensure the kind of aspirational equity that we seek for all children.

I know we all want the same thing. That’s what unites us. What divides us today, sadly, is how to get it.

As I retweeted the now famous Pondiscio piece, someone asked via Twitter if I actually could offer a definition of an education reformer. I pulled out and sent him this tongue-in-cheek “field guide to spot a real ed reformer” that we had created for a past election cycle. We noticed that people running for office at just about every level had been getting a pass for what looked to us like a lot of hallow rhetoric. Reformers were getting downright giddy when a particular candidate (often a Democrat, since it was so unusual) would say they liked charter schools too. Then you’d read the fine print and find out that such support comes with a host of caveats. Typical.

For a movement that talks about quality, we have an uneasy attitude when it comes to holding ourselves to standards of quality that policy and practice. I don’t need every reformer to be committed to vouchers—or even charters, for that matter—but there should be a recognition of the value of school choice. Why are there teachers in charters who still don’t know why a charter school is different from a traditional public school? Where are the collective efforts to press our high-performing school leaders to explain that a parent’s choice is the fruit of someone else’s toil, and if we want to keep it, we have to fight for it?

Not infrequently, I have seen great friends who lead major charter school networks decline to tell a news host that his success is indeed the result of a charter school law. Why? Why is it that we want equity and justice and fairness and a whole host of other things for people—but we can’t even take the time to acknowledge that, if not for the those structural mechanisms, this whole movement would not even exist?

We can disagree about how, how much, when, and what should be in a law. But sadly, we no longer seem to want to debate those big issues, either. We just want to give one another pats on the back, praise one another’s leadership, and commend our reported success. God forbid people like Robert Pondiscio should question why we are talking about issues that seem off-topic. I, for one, am obsessed with putting power in the hands of those closest to our kids. And forgive me, but unless that’s the topic of conversation, I’m not interested. I’d speculate that neither are the millions who want that power but don't have it.

We might even consider taking a page out of the book of the late, great John Walton, who is most responsible for the movement that exists today and who would be the first to say that his journey started and ended with parental choice. While his baton has been aptly carried by his successors and a select few other philanthropists, many prominent figures have failed to fund the warriors of social justice who live and work in the communities that most need support.

State by state, black pastors, parents, and educators are on the front lines of reform. But because they don't have the best business plan, haven’t heard of a logic model (I didn’t either until I had the time and money to go to the University of Pennsylvania) and don’t show up in our confabs, the assumption is they are not worth our time.

History must be our guide. The primary focus for those who started this fight wasn’t on fixing poverty or addressing the inequalities of race. It was—and is—about leveraging the one reform that can eradicate inequity from both: educational opportunity and freedom. School choice.

If social justice warriors can embrace that, we have a movement. If they do not, we simply have a diffuse and growing field of education actors who share many but not most of one another’s values. And that will be our downfall. Decades of the war on poverty and injustice didn’t yield the success just two twenty years of education reform have. If we don’t know that much from our history, we are doomed to repeat it.

Jeanne Allen is the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform.