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.