Education Needs a Bigger Tent, Not a Bigot Tent

May 25, 2021 12:00:00 AM


In the past several years, right-leaning education reformers have been contemptuous of—and frustrated by—progressives who brought a justice orientation into the movement. 

Back in 2015, Rick Hess at the American Enterprise Institute warned that the social justice types were sowing discord among the previously dulcet voices of reform. Apparently, Teach For America was turning out a bunch of racial freedom fighters and Democrats for Education Reform took the “Democrat” part of their name too seriously. The subtexts of the conservative pushback sounded like pride of ownership for a movement they had once perceived as theirs, a fear of a great replacement plot, and a threat that if progressives didn’t shut up about justice issues, conservatives would fatigue and exit the movement.

Now it’s my turn to warn in the opposite direction. 

I’m neither a progressive nor a liberal, but I am alarmed by the counterproductive conservative monomania about race and the culture war. [pullquote]I am certain no child will get better access to a great school as a result of old white men arguing about whether our nation’s major systems discriminate against people who aren’t old, white, or men.[/pullquote]

The world is ablaze with social conflict from the streets to corporate boardrooms and to Congress. I lay blame in large part to the failure of mass public education which turns out steady crops of graduates with inch-deep knowledge and mile-wide opinions. For too many Americans facts have given way to feelings, and self-righteous umbrage has bested temperate analysis. As a society we are not in a good place. Human understanding is in the gutter. It does not come as much of a surprise, then, to see that our own sector is facing a scaled-down version of the same problem.

I fear we are taking for granted the power and utility of an organized and sustained movement to ensure educational opportunity reaches every American. The goal of developing an educated nation is the cause to end all causes. [pullquote position="right"]Ignorance will kill us all if we cede too much public space to it.[/pullquote]

That’s why I’ve proudly worked with many advocates who advocate bipartisan (really tripartisan in my case, but that’s a different story) policies to further education “reform” or “justice” or “choice.” The movement to achieve scaled improvements in classroom teaching, student learning, assessments, standards, pathways, school governance, and outcomes is the most promising prescription to truly level the ground for millions of marginalized people. Educated people get better jobs, generate more income, stay healthier, have stronger marriages and families, and generally avoid many of the negative statistics that capture the less-educated. We can make that the reality for far more families if we keep our eyes on the prize.

But, sometimes the movement drifts too far from the core educational issues that unite us. We wander lazily into foggy alleys where we get mugged by our political differences. We go beyond disagreeing over the nuances of issues like measuring proficiency versus student growth, and end up shouting about wedge issues.

If our vision is for every parent to have the power to determine how, what, and from whom their child will learn—and for every child to receive a humane education suitable to their God-given gifts—then we must focus intently on the stably funded and politically impregnable public education establishment that has fended off insurgents for a century and a half. [pullquote]We have no chance of winning if we cannot form and sustain a broad-based movement that represents a large set of constituencies across lines of race, class, religion, and ideology.[/pullquote] The migrant mother must seek common cause and mutual aid with the well-resourced mother, and the suburban one with the urban and rural ones. 

Now, here’s the hard part. While we work to reach more constituencies and build inclusive coalitions and collective power for the good of all children, we also need to know where and when to draw the line between seeking a big tent and associating with people who call our entire project into question by turning matters of difference into matters of bigotry and hate.

For me, the time to call things into question is now. 

We are being trolled by bad-faith freelancers who revel in begging the wrong questions and accosting us with divisive smog. Whether it’s making an issue of transgender students in sports or diversity training in school districts with records of racism, or globalizing “woke” lesson plans to create an urgent moral panic where there doesn’t need to be one, we are being taken in by outrage merchants who have turned their guns on us rather than on the system that is miseducating our children.

If you need a stronger example of why the tit-for-tats are escalating to a point where some of us will be forced to cease collaborative work, here’s one for you. Conservative author Charles Murray’s forthcoming book is said to challenge liberal claims of systemic racism with a scandalously bad take, openly stating minorities fail in life because of “deficiencies” in our culture and genetics.

According to the publisher’s description, Murray will argue that the “allegations of racism in policing, college admissions, segregation in housing, and hiring and promotions in the workplace ignore the ways in which the problems that prompt the allegations of systemic racism are driven by...different means and distributions of cognitive ability.”

Even as AEI’s Hess sits at one table with Pedro Noguera under the pretense of finding common ground, his organization will be a harbormaster for the rebirth of eugenics.

[pullquote]I can’t imagine who among us will want to break bread with people who openly think us to be genetically inferior, or anyone who excuses or explains away those backward beliefs.[/pullquote]

The core issues that brought us together haven’t changed: teacher preparation, induction, support and evaluation; curriculum, instruction and pedagogy; staffing, budgets and governance; equity of opportunity and outcomes; redlining, tracking and opportunity hoarding; parental choice and uneven funding systems—all of that needs our attention. 

And, there has never been a better time for educational pluralism than now. Polls are in our favor and parents have warmed to a host of our proposals. We would do better to seize the moment by showing parents all the possibilities for educating their children while the traditional systems are bogged down in bureaucracy, instead of reliving “Birth of a Nation” or pretending there is only one way to see race and history.

It’s a moment for those of us who believe in a movement for child justice and educational opportunity to show the public our worth as innovators and problem-solvers. But we are faced with a challenge: Can we create the big tent we need without creating a bigot tent we don’t?

Chris Stewart

An award-winning writer, speaker, and blogger, Chris Stewart is a relentless advocate for children and families. Based in outstate Minnesota, Chris is CEO of brightbeam, a nonprofit media group that runs campaigns to highlight policies and practices that support thriving kids. He was the founding Director of the African American Leadership Forum, was an elected member of the Minneapolis Board of Education, and founded and served as the CEO of Wayfinder Foundation. Above all, Chris is a serial parent, a Minecraft enthusiast, and an epic firestarter on Twitter where he has antagonized the best of them on the political left and right. You’ll often see Chris blogging at and “tweeting” under the name “Citizen Stewart.”

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