Founders, Eggs and Fists: How the NewSchools Summit Proved That the Fight Over Education Is Spiritual

When the NewSchools Summit in San Francisco ended last week, Black attendees were asking me what I would write about it. They were curious because this Summit was markedly different from the last one, which I had lauded for its bold stance for diversity and social justice in education and society as a whole. (In fact, Summit attendance by people of color more than doubled over last year, from 19 percent to 40 percent.) They also knew about the backlash that followed my posts, mostly from White conservative ed reformers who felt that “leftist” social justice issues like Black Lives Matter and structural racism usurped the education conversation. My answer was an honest, “I need time to process.” In the closing plenary, Stacey Childress, CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, objectively moderated a panel called “Why Can’t We Be Friends?: Disagreements, Tradeoffs and Common Ground.” There were two reformers on the ideological “left” (Shavar Jeffries and Layla Avila) and two reformers on the “right” (Matt Ladner and Gerard Robinson), along with a video montage of high-level reformers, discussing the role race, social justice and the federal government should/should not play in the ed reform debate. I walked out of the plenary with a pit in my stomach. It rehashed the many circular arguments that had frustrated me over the past year—and the disheartening part was that there was no movement toward the center on either side. Can we be friends? I think the panelists made it clear: friendly, maybe. Friends, no. I’ve never known a movement to change the world without a ride-or-die unity on a basic level. Our children’s future is at stake, yet the panelists couldn’t even agree that feeding hungry students at school was a good idea.

A Morning of Raised Fists and Founders

I started my day at the 6:45 a.m. “Power of Us: Honoring Black Leadership” breakfast. Thaly Germain, the CEO of Equity Partners, passed out white index cards with a name written on it. My card read Chandra Weaver. I said to myself, It’s too early in the morning for a bubbly, meet-and-greet icebreaker. I panned the room for Chandra, but she wasn’t there. Then I learned that the names on the cards were of dead people, unarmed Black men and women who were killed by the police. We went around the room and said each name out loud. Thaly wanted us to start the Summit by confronting the cruel and unforgiving world that awaits kids of color, and she reminded us that the quality of their education is a matter of life and death. “None of the police who murdered these people were ever brought to trial,” she said. “Instead of taking a moment of silence, let’s take a ‘moment of power.’” Everyone in the room stood up and  raised their right fist. After the breakfast, I searched for an open seat in the vast ballroom of 1,200 people and submitted to a stark new reality. I saw two older White men, Don Shalvey and Richard Whitmire, discussing the glory days of an infantile charter school movement. The men were flanked by two massive screens projecting the portraits of 16 White men (with one White woman, one Latina and one Black-Latino man) and the words “The Founders: Class of 1998.” Like America’s founding fathers, the charter school pioneers had the money, influence and power to go into communities of color and establish a new system they thought would be best for the people, though not actually by the people. Thus, at its very inception, the well-meaning charter school movement baked in racial inequity. The Summit organizers may have anticipated such dissonance, as they shifted midway through the “The Founders” presentation to introduce four individuals who were of a “new, more diverse generation of leaders working toward a broader set of objectives, building on the work of the original founders to create high-performing schools.” Derwin Sisnett, Diane Tavenner, Nancy Bernardino and Todd Dickson (moderated by Don Shalvey) explained how their schools are designed to offer up more equity, creativity and community engagement. It was a rare moment at the Summit where the two worlds of ed reform—the old guard and the new—came together in harmony.

The Ideological Way to Cook Eggs

During the “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” panel, Gerard Robinson of the American Enterprise Institute argued against attacking massive social justice issues as a pathway to improving education. “You don’t have to boil the ocean to cook an egg,” he said. I agree. I say, let’s boil the egg in a small pot of bipartisanship. The yolk is the academic issues like standards, curriculum, assessments and teacher quality. The egg whites are the non-academic issues like school funding, discipline policies, meals and transportation, and support services like school nurses, counselors and social workers. Conservatives/Right: You cannot boil an egg without cooking both parts of it. So if you only eat yolks don’t throw away perfectly good egg whites—let the progressives chew on them. Progressives/Left: Don’t boil your eggs, scramble them! That way, conservatives will have to agree that there’s no way to separate the yolk from the whites! Since schools are a microcosm of society, we need not look outside the educational egg to address social ills. This is easy to do. For example, we could build on Thaly’s already powerful exercise by asking educators to write down the name of a student who they believe got expelled unfairly or was killed in street violence or came to school hungry each day. The teachers would organically discover patterns of injustice within their own ranks. And having them say out loud the name of a student who—on their watch—got a bum deal at school could bring the staunchest skeptic to tears.

Something Radically Different

When the Summit was over, I went to my hotel room and prayed. My emotions were all over the place and I needed God to center me. I got myself together and went to the invitation-only poolside after-party. A live band was there doing karaoke and the dance floor was packed. Frances Messano of NewSchools encouraged me to sing. After studying the playlist for 20 minutes, I decided to open up the second set with the Bill Withers’ classic “Lean on Me.” That’s when I knew how to write about the 2017 NewSchools Summit. I’ve come to realize that the fight for better schools—ones in which all children are protected, loved and valued beyond measure—is at its core neither racial nor ideological, but spiritual. As the founder and president of  Teachers Who Pray, I long to offer something radically different: a spiritual perspective and prophetic voice that won’t change with the political tide. There will always be tensions within the education reform coalition, but who are the bridge-builders among us? I want to be the person that the “left” and the “right” can call when they need a friend. That’s a tall order, but I’m leaning on an even taller God.
Marilyn Rhames
Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” ...

Join the Movement