Several years ago I went to Chicago to meet the founder of a newly formed education nonprofit that was still housed in a nondescript, temporary location. Our meeting was supposed to be about my blogging and how I might write for their new media platform. By the time I left, I had joined their team.
That was me, meeting Peter Cunningham for the first time, a guy who would become one of my biggest champions after hiring me to be Education Post’s director of external affairs.
Today, Peter is announcing he is stepping down as Education Post’s leader, and I am humbled and thrilled to be chosen as the organization’s new CEO. This happens at a moment when Peter’s vision of a “better conversation” about public education couldn’t be more necessary. Rife with tribalism and facing pushback on policies, the movement for better schools is unraveling, and as a result, losing ground.
Two years ago I left Education Post to build a community foundation that provides grants and technical assistance to women who want to challenge the systems that serve their families. The Wayfinder Foundation launched in 2017 and it has been my dream to watch it put resources into grassroots activism in marginalized communities. But, honestly, I have been uneasy doing that work while watching from the sidelines as opponents of education reform scored one too many wins.
I’ve watched with deep disappointment as the center of gravity shifted for a movement that was once resolute in its focus on accountability, choice and student achievement. Now we’ve lost our way and drifted afield with too many people talking at cross purposes, splitting hairs on trivial matters and failing to see how we are being cornered by our opposition.
While we are busy impressing ourselves with intramural infighting, the old education establishment is mobilizing infrastructure and strategies to lower public esteem for our cause. We are on our heels, and not in a fighting stance.
Once seen as the fight to create new opportunities for millions of families desperate for alternatives to subpar local schools, reform is increasingly seen by many in the public as a threat to the educators and schools deeply rooted in their communities.
That’s a problem.
The original drivers of school reform haven’t changed. Too many American children are not in schools that lift them to their highest potential. Too many sit on waiting lists or in lotteries hoping to “win” a seat in schools that work. Too few students graduate high school capable of earning a spot in the American economic mainstream. Two-thirds of schoolchildren aren’t reading proficiently, and not because they’re incapable but because the practice of reading instruction hasn’t caught up with the research of reading instruction. In most American states there are double-digit gaps between the shares of Black and White students earning bachelor’s degrees.
The system is rigged and we know it. God help us if we can’t straighten our backs, clear our heads and focus on the signal—student achievement—through the noise of the intentionally divisive and overheated rhetoric that has become the norm.
Although we’ve faced significant challenges, we can count more victories than defeat. Over the past 25 years, education reform has produced new schools, better tools for understanding how students are doing and new ways of preparing talented teachers. More than anything, this movement has brought attention to the unequal results for children living at the margins of society. Let’s not forget our progress. Let’s fight for more of it.
This isn’t a moment to give up, to cut and run, or wade in a sea of self-doubt. As some of our people retreat or surrender, I see the need for others to charge the hill, plant the flag and stand up for children as only moral people can do.
I want to bring to Education Post a results-focused plan to build a truly nonpartisan and ideologically diverse forum where parents, teachers and activists—across lines of class, race and geography—feel heard and valued, and can collectively demand the best possible educational options appropriate for their families. I firmly believe the only way to win the battle for hearts and minds is to respect the differing needs of parents and allies who may disagree with some of our politics, but agree every child deserves the opportunity to learn and achieve.
Together we can—and must—recharge our troops, change the public mind, and grow support for commonsense policies that produce safe, orderly and rigorous learning opportunities for every child in our country.
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of
brightbeam. He was named CEO in April 2019, after formerly serving as chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. In the past, Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, ...