Key flaw in market-based school reform: a misunderstanding of the civil rights struggle

There is a timely new book out with a succinct title that pretty much says it all: “Public Education Under Siege,” edited by University of Pennsylvania historian Michael B. Katz and UCLA education scholar Mike Rose. The book is divided into three parts: the first about the problems with technocratic educational reform; the second about the intersection of education, race, and poverty; and the third, alternatives of modern school reform. It’s worth your time.

Here is a version of one of the book’s essays, by Janelle Scott, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and African American Studies Department at the University of California at Berkeley.

By Janelle Scott

For at least two decades, conservatives have argued that school choice was the last unachieved civil right.  In 2010, some powerful moderate voices echoed their view and invoked the name of Rosa Parks to support it.  At an early screening of the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which claims charters are the solution for the persistent failure of urban public schools, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that the film signaled a “Rosa Parks moment” that would initiate a new movement for school choice.

Other adherents—philanthropists, policy advocates, and leading pundits— have echoed Duncan’s association of Rosa Parks and the broader Civil Rights Movement with market-based school choice. In so doing, they have reduced the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to a single act by one brave woman.  In fact, that pivotal event was the work of thousands of African Americans and their supporters who struggled for nearly thirteen months to desegregate public transportation in Alabama’s capital after Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white customer.  In addition, Parks and many of her fellow activists engaged in intensive preparation at the Highlander Center to be ready to risk their lives in acts of civil disobedience. Moreover, the concerns of these civil rights activists extended far beyond transportation; they were fighting to end America’s version of apartheid and achieve the full rights of citizenship.  As the movement grew, it also advocated the end of poverty and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.

This misunderstanding of the history of the civil rights struggle reveals one of the key flaws in the push for market-based educational solutions.  The top-down, managerial, approaches pursued by leading school reformers ignores the vital, grassroots efforts underway in low-income communities, many of which directly challenge the market approach to schools that embraces competition, choice without equity provisions, and privatization.  These local activists are deeply concerned with a range of problems that prevent public schools from giving poor and working-class children a good education: rampant unemployment, the lack of affordable housing, environmental degradation, and a flawed immigration policy.  They want the state to distribute equitable and sufficient resources across communities, not simply to individual schools and parents.  And they worry that choice stands to further stratify communities by race and poverty. These issues are especially being articulated in the wake of mass school closings and teacher terminations in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia.

 

* * *

Advocates for market-based reforms are disconnected from such grassroots concerns.  In searching for spokespeople—exemplars of struggling parents and students to represent the need for market-based reform—they neglect the vibrant efforts of those working for educational equity for entire communities.

A good example of inequity concerns the huge gap between funding for urban and suburban school districts.  In 2011, a broad swath of entrepreneurial school reformers, pundits, and even some from the civil rights community compared two African American women—Kelley Williams-Bolar from Akron, Ohio, and Tanya McDowell from Norwalk, Connecticut—to Rosa Parks after they were arrested for falsifying their address so their children might gain access to schools with more resources outside their urban neighborhoods.  Comparisons to Parks were widespread—a Google search of “Williams-Bolar Rosa Parks” yields over twelve thousand results.  For example, in a February 2011 post, Kyle Olson, a blogger for “Big Government,” appealed to education reformers to take advantage of the “human face” Williams-Bolar had provided to advocate for an expression of school choice.  His post juxtaposed the classic photograph of Parks being fingerprinted by Montgomery police officers with Williams-Bolar being handcuffed in Akron.

Olson and his fellow market advocates might have thought to ask Williams-Bolar how she saw herself, and why, if charter schools were the salvation, she had bypassed the six community schools (as charters are known in Ohio) operating in Akron.  While she acknowledged that the Copely-Fairlawn school district—the suburban district she had sought out—had higher performing schools, she wanted to send her daughters there so that they could go to their grandfather’s home nearby after school while she had to be at work.  The girls were too young to be at home alone.  In fact, on February 3, 2011, she told the Akron Beacon Journal in an article entitled, “Center to File Mother’s Appeal:”

I’m not perfect and I’m not a Rosa Parks.  I’m just a mom looking out for her kids.

Although better schooling was one issue for Williams-Bolar, safety and security for her daughters, given her need to work and support them, was a key motivation for her breaking the law.  For her and many who seek safer, better schools, there is no real choice.

 

* * *

The problem in part lies in the rigid boundaries decreed by courts, beginning in the 1970s, which effectively exempted suburban schools from the requirement to take part in metropolitan desegregation plans.  With suburban schools off-limits, school choice largely operates inside urban school districts, and market advocates who decried Williams-Bolar’s treatment did not call for a movement to eradicate district attendance boundaries.  Some choice plans, such as magnet schools, mean to facilitate desegregation on a voluntary basis and do, on the whole, promote integration.  Others, such as charter schools and vouchers, offer few ways to promote equality of opportunity beyond individual parental empowerment.  Many urban parents do avail themselves of these latter options.  But this amounts to choosing between problematic traditional public schools and alternatives they have had little role in shaping; they may be participating in an individual moment of empowerment, but their choice making is not part of a broader movement for equality of opportunity for all students.

Contemporary school reformers have not helped matters by undercutting democratic processes.  Most favor abolishing elected school boards and local school councils.  Yet, the latter were hard won by community control activists frustrated by earlier eras of school reform featuring centralized, managerial leadership dominated by white men inattentive to the needs of poor students and students of color.  Both Chicago and New York City recently did away with their elected boards of education and put mayors in charge of their schools.  In many cities, private organizations have been given the power to set up and expand charter schools.

And the making of urban educational policy is shaped by unprecedented amounts of private money.  For example, under Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools, several foundations, including the Walton Family Foundation and the Robertson Foundation, pledged millions of dollars to underwrite school reform, money contingent on implementation of the reforms.  This practice, increasingly common in cash-starved school districts, stands to distort the policy process and limit the influence of local community movements that have long fought for voice and control under more traditional school governance forms.

Because most elite reformers are disconnected from local struggles, they do not engage the issue of socioeconomic and racial inequality, even as the United States is experiencing the most profound wealth gap since the 1920s.  Parents cannot be solely focused on securing better schools for their children as long as so many are unemployed or underemployed and have neither safe nor affordable housing or access to health care.

Civil rights organizations such as the NAACP have long opposed market-based educational policies that do nothing to address racial segregation and class stratification in minority communities.  This stance brings them into coalition with teachers’ unions, which are portrayed as the prime villains in the accounts of school reformers.  But, in fact, teachers’ unions—often with African American members in the lead—have consistently supported lawsuits to desegregate schools and bring about fiscal equity between urban and suburban districts.

 

* * *

            Grassroots activists have also opposed the larger attempt to put private agencies in charge of setting up and managing schools.  For at least a decade, organizers across the country have fought against school privatization in San Francisco, New York City, Philadelphia, and other cities.  Charter schools managed by charter management organizations have expanded in New York City, bypassing the need for parents in existing schools to vote for conversion by starting new schools altogether.  These schools have expended significant resources to market themselves to parents, and, indeed, many of them have been in high demand from parents given the deplorable state of many local schools.  Yet opposition also exists.  More recently, organizers have pushed back against the growth of charter schools in Harlem and the privatization and state takeover of schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Not surprisingly, market reformers have been highly critical of these opposition efforts.  For example, Dennis Walcott, chancellor of New York City schools, accused the NAACP and teachers’ union of playing the “race card” when, in June 2011, they filed suit to stop charter schools from taking up space in existing schools.  Walcott and his supporters dismissed the overcrowding and inequitable distribution of scarce resources by accusing his critics of racial manipulation.

Yet such detractors, who would otherwise lend their support solely to the expansion of market-based schooling options, miss a vital opportunity to collaborate with organizations that are seeking to increase educational opportunity for all students.  Groups like Rethinking Schools, as well as other organizations such as the Education Opportunity Network, Parents Across America, Class Size Matters, New York Collective of Radical Educators, Forum for Education and Democracy, Coalition for Essential Schools, and A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education are examples of organizations advocating for an alternative vision of good public education.  These organizations promote public schools that are open, nested in communities, have excellent teachers and school leaders, and are well resourced, diverse, and democratic.  Despite a lack of funding and political support, they have the potential to reorient current efforts toward more democratic, high-quality, and representative public education.  Their task is to build networks that bridge communities, as the civil rights movement did decades ago.

 

* * *

The current generation of school reformers is motivated by good intentions, and they are no doubt sincere in their stated desire to emulate the goals and heroes of the Civil Rights movement.  And there do exist high-quality and equity-minded charter schools that resist market framing of their schools and students. But tensions persist over the advocacy of school choice as the prevailing civil rights issue when its focus is frequently on individual parental empowerment.  We see this focus in the attempt to make “National School Choice Week,” first launched January 2011, an event in which parent and student stories of struggle and triumph in relation to market policies are featured in national and local news media.  The message is that individual rights equate a mass movement.  It is clear that leading school reformers seem to largely view the great civil rights struggle as the work of atomized individuals and consistently denigrate contemporary activists whose ideas of how fix urban schools clash with their own.

Certainly, the liberty and dignity of each individual were key tenets of the civil rights movement.  But freedom activists kept their eyes on the prize of benefits for entire communities and worked to democratize schools and other institutions so they would not continue to be ruled by those who already enjoyed the privileges of wealth and a place at or near the top of the racial hierarchy.  Today, when the economic crisis has eroded the gains of the black and Latino middle classes and deepened the poverty of other Americans of color, and when the Supreme Court recently vacated a key provision of the seminal Voting Rights Act, school reformers continue to insist that poverty, disenfranchisement, and unemployment are “no excuse” for not performing well on standardized tests and deride critics of the privatizing and segregating effects of some choice policies as being defenders of an unequal status quo.  In fact, these market critics seek a much more equitable schooling system that would disrupt what Jonathon Kozol famously termed, in the title of his popular 1991 book, “Savage Inequalities.”

Can we imagine Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Ella Baker, or Rosa Parks marching on Washington to secure the right for parents to compete in lotteries for spaces in free-market schools?  Rather than these figures, the managers of such reforms in fact seem to be emulating another iconic cultural figure: Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning libertarian economist whose 1962 best-selling book was entitled “Free to Choose.”  

 

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | August 4, 2013