Reading Robert Pondiscio’s recent article (“The Left’s drive to push conservatives out of education reform”) calls to mind Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and its powerful image of a polar bear drifting helplessly on a shrinking sheet of ice in a warming sea.
The world is changing and people like Pondiscio sound the alarm of what it feels like to face extinction. Specifically, some white conservatives are put off by all the social justice types invading the ranks of education reform.
Apparently, Pondiscio had a bad experience at the annual New Schools Venture Fund summit. I was there and can see what set him off. From the outset it was clear the NSVF event would be different this year in that there would be more people of color, more talk about race, and more focus on equity than in past years.
I welcomed that change. So did the network of black folks who I connected with. You can only sit through so many of these functions feeling invisible, having your true beliefs redacted, before you conclude many reformers think of people of color as ornaments, humans tools for meeting inhuman ends, in essence, the help. Being a person of color in education reform too often means listening to culturally insulated people with an overweening sense of self explain their superior logic for saving a people they never met.
Push back too hard and they will place phone calls to your funders or those people they deem to be your masters, as if emancipation never happened.
People with that mindset were surely sensitive to the NSVF’s switch in tone. While there was enough technocratic catnip on the agenda (i.e. “Edtech Research that Empowers Educators and Entrepreneurs”), race-related themes abounded.
RiShawn Biddle did a rousing session on racialized student discipline troubles in urban schools. Nikole Hannah Jones sang her integration song. Brittany Packnett showed up as her full self to talk about what it is like to be a black activist for justice in all white spaces. And, there was a fairly explosive lunch time conversation with Nate Parker, the filmmaker responsible for “Birth of a Nation,” a promising film about Nat Turner’s rebellion and black liberation.
I enjoyed it so much that I never considered others were having trouble with it. But soon after the summit I heard whispers that select reformers, some with money and power, felt the inclusion of racial themes went too far.
Pondiscio is speaking for them when he complains “[l]ike the proverbial frog in a pot, education reformers on the political right find themselves coming to a slow boil in the cauldron of social justice activism.”
I almost feel like an interloper writing about it because his piece is a note to other white people. People of color exist in the piece only as props to be seen and objectified for discussion, but not heard or named.
The email chain that announced the piece generated a lot of responses mostly among white insiders. Reading it, ironically, is a bit like being a character in Parker’s “Nation” listening in on colonial powers discussing troubles with the natives.
I believe Pondiscio’s feeling of alienation is real, but I disagree about its source.
Like Gore’s polar bear trapped on a plot of uninhabitable real estate, Pondiscio joins his mates Michael Petrilli and Rick Hess in a fight for relevance. That pressure is coming from the right of them, not the left.
Education reform was once the tinker toy of moderate Republicans who saw it as the one expression of compassion for the less fortunate they could eagerly endorse, in lieu of social programs, financial remediation for past discrimination, or full funding for public education.
They once were the kings of reform, the darlings of funders, and the dominant force on discussion panels. Some still are, but some are fossilizing. I see two important changes driving their problem.
First, the reform workforce has filled with real life Democrats who brought bipartisan heft for better school policy, but other passions too.
For instance, Democrats, for the most part, believe transgender people are human. As such, they believe transgender people are entitled to the pursuit of their happiness, which, as it turns out, includes use of bathrooms with indoor plumbing.
It’s those kind of wild ideas that Pondiscio says qualifies left-leaning school reform advocates as “social justice warriors.” If you read code, that’s the new version of “black militants.”
The second problem is that moderate Republicans, those most likely to engage in school reform as a way to make America more just, are a shrinking lot. I sympathize with Pondiscio, Petrilli, and Hess because their team is slowly eroding. Radical “conservatives” are turning away from public school accountability, high standards, teacher evaluation, student testing, and other bipartisan achievements that grew out of No Child Left Behind. There is no clearer sign of this than the unholy alliance of Republicans and teachers’ unions during the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act.
All of that speaks to an ideological foreclosure on the Pondiscio wing of the right. Their response is to blow the big dog whistle of race in a desperate attempt to reclaim bona fides with the increasingly strident right-of-center electorate chanting for Trump world.
I feel for them, just not enough to be the patsy of their pretense.
Pondiscio does us all a service by calling into question the word “movement” in school reform. We’re not a movement. Movements have shared values. We are a loose federation of diverse interests engaged in common activities with a discrete set of goals. We should be careful because without excellent table manners, we might eat each other.
In the end I’m not qualified to be a therapist to whiteness when it starts to gag on its own privilege. Which is why I’m thrilled to see white allies engage Pondiscio, including an open letter from a group organized by Justin Cohen, and a response from Stacy Childress at the NSVF.
And this piece by Marilyn Rhames is absolute brilliance. It’s easy for people of color, fatigued as some are by the constant surveillance of reform overseers, to seethe in silence rather than rage against the machine, so Rhames is a revelation.
It would be a shame to waste this teachable moment so generously opened up by the syndicate of anonymously quoted white conservatives who feel like frogs in the boil.