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Laura Waters

You Can’t Talk About Education Reform Without Talking About Social Justice

In the bubble of the education reform world, everyone is (still) talking about Robert Pondiscio’s essay,  The Left’s Drive to Push Conservatives Out of Education Reform.   Pondiscio’s essay incited a host of replies, both from those who agree with him (who are, it has to be said, mostly White conservative men who once comprised the vast majority of ed reformers) and those who don’t. There’s no need to reiterate those points. For me—female, Jewish, White, and never in attendance at a NewSchools Venture Fund meeting (it’s invitation only and I’ve never been invited)—Pondiscio’s piece was personally and conceptually confounding.

Passing Down Cultural Trauma

My grandparents came to this country from the Ukraine and Belarus as poor young adult English-language learners escaping Jewish genocide. My maternal grandmother left her parents and two sisters behind; they were all murdered by Gestapo sympathizers in a pogrom. She and my other grandparents, as well as other family members, carried with them to America a legacy of persecution and intended annihilation. I don’t know whether I believe in epigenetics—the theory that severe trauma can be genetically passed down from one generation to another—but I do know that the impact of those horrors on my grandparents changed my parents and, in turn, changed me. Sometimes my kids tell me “Mom, you’re right off the boat” when I lapse into a Yiddish phrase or express an illogical aversion to German products. They’re right. I am, sort of. It’s a blink of an eye between my cousin being gunned down trying to escape from Auschwitz 75 years ago and me sitting here in central New Jersey. Yet another blink of an eye: that same maternal grandmother, deep into senility in her 90s and quaking in fear as she—in a pidgin of Polish, Yiddish, and English—hallucinates that the Nazis are storming into her home. Many Jews quickly climbed out of poverty through education. Many people of color didn’t. I don’t pretend to understand what it’s like to be Black or brown in America but I believe that cultural trauma can, genetically or not, be handed down through generations and that defiance of that reality cripples the values—school choice, equity, standards and accountability—that education reformers share.

'What to Do With the Colored Students'

Hence, my confusion. How can Robert Pondiscio not embrace the newly diverse leadership of education reform? How can the NewSchools Venture Fund not be enhanced by diversity? How can an agenda framed by White male education reformers be in any way diminished by those most affected? How can one talk about the lack of access to good schools and achievement gaps without talking about Black Lives Matter? How can one separate America’s institutionalized culture of racial prejudice from the academic underachievement of many students of color? Last week, a central office staff member in my local school district handed me a report on the state of the schools commissioned by the school board in 1926, about the same time that my family escaped from Eastern Europe. One quandary addressed by the report is what to do with the growing cohort of “colored” students. According to author Samuel Engle Burr, who was the the district’s “supervising principal,” (what we now call the superintendent):
Colored pupils…did not measure up to grade in attainment and that on the average, they did not measure up to normal in mental ability.
He writes,
There are some brilliant colored students who do excellent school work. Our tests, however, as those given elsewhere, indicate that on the average, the work of colored pupils does not reach the standard set by white pupils of the same age and grade. With a percentage of 25 percent colored pupils in a school, this is sure to affect the progress possible for any pupils in that school.
The recommendation from this district leader is to build a four-room school building for “these students.”
Such a school for the colored pupils would leave them free to develop their race ideals, under the leadership of their own people, for it would employ three teachers, a teaching principal and a janitor -- all of the negro race. It would also provide a center of interest and a community gathering place for the colored people of the district.
It was a blink of an eye from my grandparents’ escape to my family’s safety. A whisper of time from the 1926 New Jersey school board report to an Alabama school teacher giving her students a math test that included this question: “Tyrone knocked up 4 girls in the gang. There are 20 girls in his gang. What is the exact percentage of girls Tyrone knocked up?"

How Can We Talk About Education Reform?

While my ethnic heritage continues to endure anti-Semitism, Jews have rarely been persecuted because we don’t “reach the standard set by White pupils of the same age and grade.” But there’s no point in comparing persecution. Just because I’m Jewish doesn’t mean I understand what it means to be Black or brown in America. But the passion I feel for education reform is fostered by what Yavilah McCoy describes in her essay,  Trayvon Martin: Reflections on the Black and Jewish Struggle for Justice:
Jewish activist communities have historically been allies to communities of color in the fight for racial justice and equality in our country. Jews were among those who worked to establish the NAACP in 1909. In the early 1900s, Jewish newspapers drew parallels between the Black movement out of the South and the Jews’ escape from Egypt, pointing out that both Blacks and Jews lived in ghettos, and calling anti-Black riots in the South “pogroms.”
I don’t know how we can talk about education reform in any meaningful way without the context of social justice and institutionalized racism in our nation’s schools, any more than I can think back on my personal history without the context of anti-Semitism. Such an artificially divested construct is intellectually dishonest and ethically untenable. I also don’t know whether Pondiscio’s complaints of conservative alienation from the growingly progressive face of school reform is resentment, egotism or consternation of smart Republicans confronting the implosion of the GOP as Trump ascends as standards-bearer. But I do know that fixation on an agenda codified by disproportionately White representatives diminishes all our efforts and hardens the bubble that we struggle to breach.
Laura Waters
Laura Waters writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all. She is based in New Jersey, where she and her husband have raised four children. She recently finished serving 12 years ...

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