Clowns to the left of us, jokers to the right: social justice in education reform
December 7, 2016
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The social justice wing of education reform had better stiffen its back and prepare for the fight of its life. Donald Trump’s election and his subsequent selection of Republican school choice champion Betsy DeVos as America’s top education chief sends signals we would be foolish to ignore.

To be clear, this isn’t about DeVos. If you’re looking for a validation of DeVos’ education record, or a condemnation of her personal motives, my apologies, but you’ll find neither here. Smart people tell me she will have marginal power and she will be hamstrung – ironically – by Republican-led efforts to weaken the Department of Education.

So what’s the real problem?

Well, it’s not looking good for the issues social justice reformers care most about: school quality, state accountability, achievement outcomes, systemic equity, and civil rights. Those parts of the reform agenda face stiff winds because of a bizarre confluence of actors that includes states’ rights Republicans, anti-testing and anti-accountability unionists, and ineffective or misguided civil rights organizations.

In the years since No Child Left Behind was established reform bipartisanship has been a marriage of complimenting virtues: a release of schools from centralized bureaucracy, but coupled with high expectation for results; it’s the autonomy schools need to do better, coupled with accountability for outcomes.

Those virtues have been weathered, mostly because right-wing education reformers became increasingly animated by – and intolerant of – social justice activism within the education reform ranks. They volleyed with other reformers over the threat they say “social justice warriors” pose to the collegiality and bipartisanship of school reform. They’ve bristled at the race-conscious work done by Teach For America, Students For Education Reform, and Educators 4 Excellence, groups that have increasingly focused attention on human rights, culturally relevant pedagogy, and community organizing.

More than anything this rift has exposed the difference in motives of people seeking reform.

Social justice reformers speak of education as the great equalizer, and they see ensuring a great education for the millions of poor students and children of color in public schools as primary strategy for reversing centuries of racial discrimination and destabilizing systemic white supremacy.

Right-wing reformers are more likely to see education reform as a way to improve government, to validate Adam Smith, and to prove things work best when markets are free as possible and positive self-interest is unbridled.

Until recently those two world views have coexisted. It’s been an uneasy partnership at times, based mostly on interest convergence, but it was manageable.

That was before there was a critical mass of social justice reformers disturbed the peace. Right-wingers started exhibiting signs of alienation about their place in reform and worried out loud about how the inclusion of new voices would displace their own.

Michael Petrilli from the Fordham Institute put it best, saying “…it feels to me as if many of reformers on the left have spent the last year…pushing the reform movement to embrace what they call “social justice” and what I would view as hard-left positions on race, criminal justice, and more…you cannot continue to antagonize mainstream Republicans (by, for example, constantly calling them racists just because they don’t agree with you on issues of race) and expect them to continue to champion our cause.

Shut up about race and human rights. Or else.

Rick Hess from the American Enterprise Institute builds on that premise by laying blame at President Obama’s feet, saying the Obama administration  “did their best to shove the Common Core down the nation’s throat, told schools that they could no longer allow students to use locker rooms based on biology, pressed colleges to adopt lawless kangaroo courts in response to a nonexistent campus “rape epidemic,” fought to let federal bureaucrats dictate local school spending policies, and championed race-based quotas for school discipline.”

A look at Hess’ lists of perceived victims reveals why a right-wing education agenda can’t be the primary one.

His perceived victims aren’t parents who fear their children will be scooped up from their school bus stops by ICE raids, or Muslims witnessing the precursors to internment, or LGBTQ students fearing a vice president accused of believing electricity can cure gayness, or black students who are systematically marginalized by disproportionate rates of school discipline.

The victims he sees as worth defending are the state governors who want federal education funding with no strings attached; states that want to define educational standards in ways that allow them to game the system (and hide poor outcomes); restroom homophobes, college rapists, and school districts that want to continue spending money and disciplining students inequitably.

A month ago we could  have argued about those things from a position of semi-equal power.

Today we have to admit there is no better way to win an argument and say I told you so than to win a presidency, a Congress, (perhaps) a Supreme Court, and an education secretary.

They showed us.

We can’t become paralyzed or disillusioned. We can’t live in our feelings forever. We can’t forget that lives and minds are at risk, and we can’t live the values we profess if we wilt in the face of setbacks.

No, we can’t join the right-wingers as they attempt to nationalize Michigan’s charter school sewer and make all of America an education casino. But, we can’t join the unionists either as they attempt to remove all accountability from public education as a way to hide unacceptable levels of failure.

And we can’t sit on the sidelines as passive bystanders feeling jilted as forces from the left and right threaten to unwind most of the educational progress we’ve made over decades.

All we can do is stay clear and focused on our permanent interests: accountable systems, high standards that are transparent, better options for kids trapped in poorly performing schools, and a focus on human rights for people who have suffered historic discrimination.

The social justice we seek, and the best answer to the white nationalist takeover of government, is achieved at least in part by producing more literate, numerate, thinking people from marginalized communities.

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