On Wednesday, Elisa Villanueva Beard, the chief executive of Teach For America, started her day by comforting her crying son as he asked if his grandmother would be sent back to Mexico, where she was born. De’Shawn Wright, the chief of staff at Newark Public Schools, texted his friend Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator and former Newark mayor, seeking reassurance. Booker’s message, according to Wright: “You’ve gotta be a prisoner of hope.”
Then, like so many Americans stunned by Donald Trump’s upset, they went to work — where, in their cases, as leaders of the so-called education reform movement, the reckoning continued.
Trump’s victory not only unsettles the future role of the federal government in American schools (he has said he wants to eliminate or severely cut the U.S. Department of Education). It is also raising wrenching questions for leaders who have devoted their working lives to improving schools in poor communities.
Some of those questions are immediate. Among the 7,000-plus teachers who teach in poor schools across the country through Teach For America today, 146 are undocumented and facing the prospect of losing legal protections should Trump follow through on his promise to overturn DACA. In the state-run Newark schools district ruled by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a top Trump advisor, Wright started his morning Wednesday fielding reports of immigrant students showing up to school terrified they would be deported.
Other questions are deeper and still developing. Here are four I heard from multiple education reform leaders in conversations Wednesday.
Which children should the education reform movement serve?
Several education leaders I talked to were struck by the wave of white working-class voters, including many rural and rust-belt Americans without college degrees, supporting Trump. By focusing their efforts primarily on improving schools for black and Latino students living in urban communities, has the education reform movement missed another group facing economic challenges and in need of better educational opportunity?
Reformers “largely overlooked a crisis that’s been hiding in plain sight for years,” Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, wrote almost a year ago, in a piece that was getting recirculated Wednesday among reformers. He went on:
There are about twice as many non-Hispanic whites as blacks living below 150 percent of the poverty line in the U.S. It’s a fair bet that their kids aren’t doing very well in school – and that they see Donald Trump as my guy.
“This election is showing us how unheard and unsupported so many different people feel. Like vastly different people,” said Villanueva Beard. “This morning, I was thinking, what is the implication of this for me and for us a community generally? Where have we missed it? What voices are not at the table helping to push our thinking and reach a broader coalition of people who are all seeking liberty and justice?”
Like many education reform organizations, Teach For America primarily works in urban communities. Though it does have some rural offices, almost all of those serve students of color. The one exception is Teach For America’s office in Eastern Kentucky, called Teach For America Appalachia, where 40 teachers this year entered classrooms in one of the country’s highest-poverty congressional districts — 29 percent of people lived below the federal poverty line, according to 2015 census estimates, and more than 95 percent of people are white.
“We’re in rural Appalachia,” Villanueva Beard said. “But we need to really consider, are we doing enough there?”
What does education reform have to offer rural communities?
If education reformers turn their attention to rural and rust-belt communities, what can they offer them?
While some activists have focused their energies on solutions for rural schools, they are disconnected from the school reform movement that has been ascendant the last 30 years. And mainstream reform policies — policies like higher academic standards and tougher consequences for poor performance, combined with school choice and new influxes of mission-driven teachers — don’t necessarily translate into rural environments.
“It’s probably easier to say, hey, who wants to go teach in New Orleans? It’s probably harder to say hey, who wants to teach in Youngstown, Ohio?” said Pondiscio.
Still, some pointed to small-scale efforts that suggest mainstream reformers can successfully extend their work to different contexts. Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute think tank, pointed to a charter school he visited this Monday in poverty-stricken Portsmouth, Ohio, that is authorized by Fordham. The school’s autonomy from traditional school district governance, a trait charter school supporters say allows for improvements, also seemed to be working at that school, Petrilli said.
One difference: Unlike most urban charter schools, located in the heart of Hillary Clinton’s support, in Portsmouth, Petrilli saw “Trump signs everywhere. No Clinton signs to be found in the town.”
The executive director of Teach For America’s Appalachian region, Josh Sparks, said he believes that TFA’s model of building change advocates by exposing young people to high-poverty schools firsthand can work in Appalachia.
“I’m really excited for the future,” said Sparks. “I’m really hopeful that our communities will come together and realize that we are the ones that have to be the change that we want in our region.”
How should education reform reckon with race?
Questions about which communities education reformers should serve come at a time when the group is divided on the role of race in their work. As the Black Lives Matter movement took off, some reformers increasingly adopted the language of anti-racism as a core component of their education work. Others, meanwhile, urged reformers to drop that mantle, which they saw as unnecessarily divisive.
The election of a candidate endorsed by white supremacists only accelerates this debate.
For those who have chosen to talk more directly about their desire to end racism, the election strengthened their determination. “It is undeniable that deep divisions along racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines played an important role in this election cycle, and I am more convinced than ever that the work we are doing – both internally and externally – to dismantle systemic inequity is critical to our success as an organization and as a nation,” said Jonas Chartock, chief executive of Leading Educators, a reform group focused on supporting teachers in leadership roles.
Pondiscio, meanwhile, who has led the other side of the argument, also found fuel for his position in the election results. If Trump’s victory shows many voters felt alienated by Black Lives Matter-style anti-racism, then connecting education reform to that stance could erode potential support. “As far as I can tell, we have a broadly distributed performance problem in American education,” Pondiscio told me today. “So to the degree to which we have allowed charters, choice, and ed reform more broadly to be an urban thing, I think that has been a miscalculation.” (Pondiscio made a similar argument last month, here.)
Everyone I spoke with — including Pondiscio — emphasized that extending their work to serve poor white students should not threaten service of poor black and Latino students.
“We’re not going to back down from our commitment to the kids in communities that we serve now given the massive disparities and generations of that,” Villanueva Beard said. “I’m thinking of it more as an and… There are real implications, I get it, and choices, when you have limited resources and limited capacity. I think that’s the next question. But I won’t even contemplate the or.”
“This does not have to be a zero-sum game,” echoed Shavar Jeffries, president of the advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform. “The same standards and accountability, the same need for high-quality teaching, the same need for great school leadership, the same need for adequate resources — all these young people need it.”
Will Trump voters support education reform?
As political allegiances shift, education leaders wondered who they can expect to support them going forward.
Jeffries, of Democrats for Education Reform, told me about an unexpected encounter last week while in Memphis, Tennessee. Most of his trip to Memphis was spent meeting with education reform’s traditional constituents: African-American parents who are part of the parent group Memphis Lift. But then he met another Memphis area parent by chance — his Uber driver, a white woman.
When Jeffries told her he was in town to work on school improvement, he said, “She just went on. She went on about her kids.” They hadn’t had high-quality teachers, they weren’t prepared for good jobs, and now they couldn’t find work. “She was like, yeah I’m so happy to hear somebody’s trying to do something to make the schools better. And I was like…what we’re fighting for is exactly what your child needs.”
Jeffries said today he is convinced that same commonality between struggling people of all races can ultimately create a new coalition behind school reform.
“At some point, [Trump supporters are] going to say, actually, I want to figure out how it is that I get some economic viability for myself and my family,” he said. “And if they’re going to engage in that conversation, they’re going to have to at some point reckon with the fact that they’re going to have to get skills for the global economy. And that should lead them naturally back to education reform.”
Ethan Gray, chief executive of the advocacy group Education Cities, pointed to a skit that recently aired on Saturday Night Live, where a white working class man joined as a contestant on a satirical Black Jeopardy! show — and found he had a lot in common with his competitors.
“There’s obviously some shared grievances,” Gray said, “if we could just get to talking to each other about them.”