Reformers and anti-reformers should get along. Their sermons do little more than preach to choirs who’ve been singing songs that black and brown families don’t like.

This week I attended the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in Chicago. New Orleans reforms surfaced throughout the conference mostly as a case of what not to do. I watched one such panel titled Bending the Arc Toward Justice: New Orleans, Black Education and the National and International Struggle Against Market-Based Reform – Interactive Town Hall. The panel was led by Kristen Buras, associate professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

Buras represents a substantive voice among education scholars who write about the influence of market-based reforms on public education. Buras takes aim at New Orleans-based reform organizations, school leaders and teacher prep programs as well as foundations and government programs that fund them. She uses a critical lens, as in critical race theory, which illuminates the engrained racism within policies and practices (education reform) exercised by those in power.

It doesn’t take much to see why we need a racial lens on New Orleans. The lack of inclusion in hiring, the virtually non-existent plan to build capacity of a local talent pool, denial of neighborhood charter applications as well as reformers’ ostensible refusal to acknowledge their racial blinders provide Buras the stage and audience reformers don’t want her to have.

But when you go to hear Buras and many anti-corporate reform meetings, you feel the same as when you go to pro-reform meetings. Panels are typically stacked with like-minded folks who are more into saying I told you sothan authentically seeking understanding, self-critique or change for people of color for that matter.

Let’s be clear. Racism, elitism and paternalism didn’t start with charter schools or with this latest wave of education reform. Corporations have always held interests in public education. Higher education helped and continues to create systems that fail black and brown children. And black folk don’t have much choice but to work in institutions that don’t necessarily share our values. The current anti-reform critiques seldom address these realities.

Panelist Theresa Perry, professor of Arts and Sciences at Simmons College did bring contrast to the panel as she questioned AERA’s commitment to New Orleans immediately after the storm. But most others provided the same sour note about what’s happening in NOLA and in reform in the U.S. in general.

But when scholars loosely brand people (and not institutions) as neo-liberals, colonizers, corporate elites and privatizers in their poorly veiled diatribes, the meaning of those concepts are cheapened and the analyses fall flat.

For instance, when panelist Michael Apple, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison characterized corporate elites involved in reform as “martini sipping” colonizers I immediately hoped that people didn’t check the conference hotel’s bar tab. Really, pot meet kettle. If we’re waiting on most scholars to bring about social change, we will be waiting a long time. Also, black folk don’t get much from professors’ fighting words. Other reality shows are more entertaining.

Let’s not make academic conferences non-academic. Let’s honor our disciplines with discipline.

I cringe to the overuse of jargon as much as I cringe when I hear shallow reform slogans such as poverty doesn’t matterit’s all about the kids or if only we can move beyond adult issues. Let’s give straight talk people.

The pro- and anti-reform labels imposed on people overshadow the progressive work people of color are doing in paternalistic traditional or reform schools. Again, most educators of color work in organizations they do not necessarily ascribe to. More often than not we have to reform schools from the inside out. Therefore, give credit to those who are doing the authentic teaching and capacity building while working in reform. Acknowledge how institutions have changed because of that subversive work. Recognize when an elected board isn’t giving folk democracy. Actually believe that black and brown students can thrive in spite of the systems we’re educated in. We always have.

All of this requires nuance. Nuance helps us see our own blinders and the work that should be done.

Let’s not make the argument about school reform a spectacle that only elites (college professors included) can benefit from.


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