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Does Black Lives Matter belong in education reform? A private debate bursts into public view

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A private debate about the role of race in the community of people who call themselves “education reformers” lept into public view this week. The (ongoing) conversation is worth reading.

Marilyn Anderson Rhames, a black journalist and educator, launched the debate with a piece in the Education Post about her experience at the NewSchools Venture Fund’s annual conference earlier this month in San Francisco. The conference (which I attended) is one of several annual gatherings of the philanthropists, school officials, and nonprofit leaders who make up the so-called “education reform movement,” dedicated to improving schools, especially for poor students. But it was the first of those where Rhames felt what she called “a sense of belonging.”

The conference, she wrote,

acknowledged that the education reform agenda cannot be called a “movement” until those most harmed by inequality are leading it. Moreover, it was the first time I have seen my White allies and funders admit their limitations and take a backseat to leaders of color. Black and Latino speakers gave voice to educational policies and politics that keep them and their low-income students stuck in subordinate roles. They energized attendees to take their seats at the table.

On Wednesday Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and who is white, wrote a piece criticizing the conference as representative of a “leftward lurch” that does not include what he called “conservative ideas.” Rhames had specifically praised the conference’s echoes of the Black Lives Matter movement, including panels and speakers on race and buttons passed out with the phrase “Stay Woke.” Pondiscio wrote about the conference:

“There were moments when I wondered, ‘Are we going to talk about anything but personal narratives and how terrible structural racism is?’” asked this attendee, a senior executive at a national education nonprofit. “When are we going to talk about education?”

Rhames replied yesterday in this post. She wrote:

If you call yourself an urban education reformer and you find yourself asking, “Are we going to talk about anything other than personal narratives and how terrible structural racism is?” then the chances of you successfully delivering educational equity to these poor children living in Chicago is zero.

These kids don’t spend a lot of their time talking about racism; they are too busy playing indoors to avoid random bullets that ring like doorbells in the ghettos that our city politicians redlined just for their kind.

I didn’t hear the left saying “fix structural racism first” before we can fix schools, as you report. I heard them saying that we cannot fix schools if the same racial hostility that permeates society also thrives within our own education reform organizations.

According to Rhames’ first piece, NewSchools Venture Fund said some conservative backers had pulled support away from the organization as it put race and class under the spotlight.

The CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, Stacey Childress, chimed in to address the description in a comment:

over the last couple of years, fewer center-right and conservative folks in education have been attending our Summit, and I’m concerned about this fact and want to work on it. Efforts to re-imagine education will take all of us, and a bi-partisan coalition will be more powerful if we can hold it together while staying true to our purposes and following the lead of Black and Latino leaders in the work.

This, this (a longer response by Childress), and this (a summary of the conference, with videos) are also worth reading.

Update (Friday, May 27): A long and still growing list of white leaders who identify as education reformers have drafted an open letter supporting NewSchools Venture Fund’s stance. The letter argues that their reform coalition “has a problem”: its leaders are disproportionately white and from backgrounds of privilege. They write:

Those of us signing this letter are some of those white leaders. We must admit the extraordinary flaws and shortsightedness in our own leadership for letting the field become so lopsidedly white through the early 2000s. In under-representing the communities that we hoped to serve, particularly people of color, in the leadership and decision-making processes of reform, we created a movement that lacked the ability to drive durable change. A movement of innovators and technocrats will never have the intellectual and moral power of a movement created by, and led by, the communities most affected by inadequate public schooling. And while there is an important role for allies to play in advancing the work of school improvement for poor students and students of color, an unrepresentative group will lack the critical insight and creativity that diversity and inclusivity bring to addressing complex problems.

The letter, published on the website of Justin Cohen, who led the group Mass Insight Education, also challenges Pondiscio’s argument that the type of conversation about race NewSchools hosted excluded conservative political views:

Believing that the people most directly affected by educational inequity should have an outsized voice regarding the potential solutions is not a political stance. A true movement for improving schools must embrace the leadership of the communities we hope to serve, and elevate—not ridicule—the ideas of the leaders of those communities. That doesn’t mean that we need to suddenly rebuke everything that Pondiscio and his anonymous sources believe, but it does mean their perspectives must live alongside the stated needs and objectives of the communities whose lives we wish to value in our work. Just as it was always a false choice between “fixing poverty” and “fixing education,” so is it a false choice between abolishing institutional racism and improving schools.

Update (Saturday, May 28): More education leaders are chiming in to this impassioned conversation.

  • Chris Stewart argues that Pondiscio’s concern about “social justice warriors” overtaking education reform is a new code for “black militants” — and a misguided response to declining conservative support for school reform.
  • Alma Marquez writes that education reform’s leaders of color are “challenged by the same assets” they bring — skin color and ethnicity.
  • NewSchools Venture Fund CEO Stacey Childress calls for a “new coalition that can cut across lines of difference” and thereby mend the “fraying bi-partisan consensus on ed reform.” (Also linked to above.)
  • Jennifer Borgioli Binis points out a common assumption of maleness when describing reform leaders, in a field that is majority female. She also argues Pondiscio’s piece left one question unanswered: “When it comes to school reform, what makes a conservative reformer different than a progressive reformer?”
  • Jay Greene answers Borgioli Binis’s question. Conservatives don’t disagree that issues of poverty, racism, and police brutality are relevant to education, he writes; they just have very different takes on those issues that could needlessly divide the ed reform coalition.
  • Kathleen Porter-Magee, Pondiscio’s colleague, says white, middle-class, conservative reformers need to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.
  • Erika Sanzi urges her colleagues not to jump so quickly to criticize Pondiscio.
  • Patrick Riccards describes his own transition from advocating to listening when a black pastor told him his problem was “you’re white.”
  • Alex Johnston says what’s really at issue is the difference between an interest-group approach to reform, and a social-movement approach.

Update (Monday, May 30):

  • In a must-read tweetstorm, Brittany Packnett, the executive director of Teach For America’s St. Louis chapter and a Black Lives Matter organizer, describes how her work on race, via culturally responsive pedagogy and related practices, makes her work in education more successful. She also connects the conservative discontent chronicled by Pondiscio to concerns of white clergy recounted by Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
  • Educator and writer Jose Vilson says white educators’ pleas for more diverse leadership “mean nothing if we’re not talking about the ways in which each of us is complicit in the complex ways we keep the machine well-oiled.”

Update (Wednesday, June 1):

  • Dan Weisberg of TNTP says conservatives need to realize that speaking out against institutional racism shouldn’t be seen as part of any one ideological agenda.
  • John Thompson argues that this discussion shows that education reform has been dominated by people blinded by their lack of understanding of what happens inside classrooms.
  • Rick Hess says reformers on the left and right can disagree in good faith about big issues, but says progressive reformers often shut down potential dialogue by invoking white privilege.
  • Derrell Bradford says many people have mistakenly reduced an important debate about the role of market-based thinking in education to a discussion of white-male anxiety. As a black man “who often wonders if I might be deprived of my freedom,” he writes, “markets” thinking and “equity” thinking are both vital.
  • Rita Rathbone, a teacher and instructional coach, says education reformers have alienated another important group: teachers and “those who would dare question their corporate reform orthodoxy.” (Added June 2.)

This piece has been updated to correct an earlier error. Pondiscio did not attend the NewSchools Venture Fund conference, though an earlier version incorrectly called him an attendee.

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”