It must have been mortifying for Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren to have a loud group of Black parents—mostly mothers and grandmothers—shout her down at a campaign stop that was meant to highlight the importance of valuing Black women. As they chanted “our child, our choice,” a mantra in support of school choice (and against Warren’s proposed curb to federal charter school funding) she stood immobilized. Ayanna Pressley had to step in with a wagging finger to sternly lecture the protestors.
In that moment the Democrats’ battle over public education was on full display.
This reminds me of Fannie Lou Hamer who in the 1960s brought plain talk to the Democratic party that was ignoring the needs of southern, poor Black folks. The establishment worked all of its angles to silence her. They sent Roy Wilkins, the educated negro from the NAACP, to tell Hamer that she was ignorant and she should leave politics to the people who know best—people like him.
That encounter caused her to cancel her NAACP membership and say, “There ain't nothing I respect less than the NAACP.” The Southern, poor and country Hamer would not be turned back, belittled, or silenced, even against crazy odds and the most powerful people.
I can’t help but think history repeats itself until we learn from it.
That’s where Pressley, a college-educated, middle-class Black woman, whose hard-working mother living on the South Side of Chicago sent her to a prestigious private school that today costs $37,000 a year, eagerly volunteered to play the role of Wilkins.
And these mothers, fathers, grandmothers and guardians, who live in some of the poorest, most incarcerated zip codes in the country, traveled long distances to Atlanta, only to be told they are ignorant, like Hamer.
Those who wish to be president on the Democratic side want the most economically insecure families to wait for better schools. A fix is coming, they promise, like they promised for years. More money, more services, more staff in the same system of miseducation will make it all better. No need for expanding school choices, or for improving and diversifying the teaching profession, or for improving and modernizing our standards and curricula to better serve the needs of each and every child.
But how patient would middle-class people be if their kids were falling years behind in school? What do they do when the system isn't working for their kids? Warren’s case is instructive. When the public system didn’t work for her son she put him in a private school. Ambitions for higher office have recast her as a champion of public schools who gets her education policy wholesale from unions and Diane Ravitch, the ranking leader of the unreform movement (and another private school parent turned public school zealot).
The education establishment, its unions and the politicians it controls are working to dismantle two decades of progressive education policy that offered families options beyond bureaucratized, politicized and unionized district schools. The public’s sympathy for striking teachers, the universal belief that the biggest problem with schools is lack of money and a general disregard for the experience of marginalized parents makes it an opportune moment to roll back education reforms.
The system is winning.
In the past few days, I’ve seen too many messages online scandalously demoting the protestors to ignorant nobodies who are being used by White, wealthy people in an attempt to destroy our perfectly amazing district schools. These claims come without the slightest realization of how much they expose many Democrats for being the elitist, racist people they accuse others of being.
While they constantly profess their love for the little guy, leading Democratic candidates constantly throw that little guy under the union bus if it helps their career prospects.
Families like those who make up the Powerful Parent Network—who are purposely redlined into the school districts where the only people who think the status quo is worthy of loyalty are the adults who draw their pensions from those schools—can’t be bamboozled by the system. They can’t sacrifice their children to some sketchy promise of a “public good.”
To be Black in America is a constant struggle for full humanity. Nobody knows that more than the guardians of the faces at the bottom of the well. Nobody knows that more than the mothers of the poor, the grandmothers of the children left behind, the caregivers to those who are Black, Brown, under-resourced, dyslexic, exceptional, medically fragile and academically thirsty in classrooms built on the lowest of expectations.
This week, I’m grateful for those mothers and guardians who boarded buses or planes, made signs and planned chants, and headed out for Atlanta to take their grievances directly to the source of political power that seeks to deny them agency and a fair shot finding options for their youth. I’m grateful that they spoke plainly, in their own vernacular, and made the leaders hear them—because ignoring them before the cameras and bright lights would have shown them for the classist hypocrites they are.
Hamer wanted a fundamental change in the power structure that made sure the underclass has a direct role in the system governing their lives. We can learn from that. Rather than discounting the parents who demand better school options, fair school systems and more resources, leaders should make sure they are seated in the power rooms when agendas are formed.
Warren isn’t alone in ignoring voices in the underclass about public schooling. Her competitors should be called out too. If Democratic candidates for president—indeed, candidates from all parties—wish to be true representatives of all Americans, they will stop taking sides in the education wars, stop pitting parents against each other, and stop acting as if children are less important the moment they enter a charter or non-traditional schools.
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, ...