Students of Color

Education Reformers Are Talking About Race and They Should Be

Ed reform circles are getting all worked up about race. Chicago charter parent and educator Marilyn Rhames started the conversation with a modest celebration of the growing diversity in the reform movement and the broadening focus on social justice issues. Writer and educator Robert Pondiscio kicked it into high gear with a provocative piece suggesting that “social justice warriors” are driving away conservatives from education reform. Dozens of others weighed in as well. I stand firmly in Marilyn’s corner on this issue. Anyone involved in education reform knows that we have done a poor job of diversifying the movement. We’ve gotten better in recent years, due to the dedicated work of organizations like Teach For America, whose latest recruits are about half people of color and half from low and middle-income families. The increased diversity comes at a time when the entire country is confronting issues of racial justice—most notably in policing—but also in other sectors of society, including education. By every single measure—funding, access to quality learning opportunities, outcomes—people of color face continuing inequities in education. We need to own up to it. Tragically, many states and the federal government are going in the other direction, weakening accountability systems that were set up to protect children at risk, enabling a retreat from high standards, and allowing states and districts to maintain inequitable funding formulas. Shouldn’t we talk about this? Shouldn’t we do something about it? And if we're going to start talking about other issues like discipline and whether college for all is an unrealistic strategy, shouldn’t we hold ourselves to a high standard and ensure that all of our policies promote equity in outcomes? Today, it’s not even close. Black kids are far more likely to be suspended than White kids and low-income kids are far less likely to complete college. We all agree that orderly classrooms are necessary and college isn’t for everyone, but we should still be concerned about grossly inequitable outcomes. What exactly are conservatives afraid of? Is it that solving these problems could put them at odds with their political base? Local control zealots on the right don’t want anyone telling them how to run their schools—especially people of color. But should local control trump equity? Is it that conservatives genuinely fear that social justice issues could divert attention away from their preferred strategies to improving schools, i.e. charters and vouchers? People of color overwhelmingly support those approaches, but every policy must be examined in light of outcomes: If results are inequitable, maybe the policies are flawed. Many people of color also believe equitable resources matter, and maybe that’s the problem. Race-based conversations might force states and districts to admit that their funding formulas shortchange Black and Hispanic students. The solution may require shifting dollars from middle-class Whites to lower-income communities of color. The politics gets messy quick. We have to talk about these issues and now that we have done a better job including people of color, we can’t suddenly limit the terms of the debate. I worry that Pondiscio’s piece will have a chilling effect on a much-needed conversation. Will the next conference organizer decide to keep Black Lives Matter off the agenda, just to avoid this kind of pushback from the right? As one member of an organization determined to advance the case for needed change in public education, I am deeply committed to elevating voices of color, for whom this fight is real and personal. I am absolutely confident that reformers of every race and background are far more in sync than this debate suggests. I am equally confident that if the conversation proceeds wherever people choose to take it, it will end up right back in the classroom. It always does.
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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