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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Race, Social Justice, and School Reform

By Rick Hess — January 26, 2017 5 min read
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We’re not even out of January, and 2017 has been wild. The new president is a polarizing figure of epic proportions. His initial days in office give no hint that he’s going to tone things down. And questions about race and class have driven much of the effort to make sense of his election and think about what comes next. From where I sit, though, most of this sense-making (at least in the world of education) has felt one-sided, pedantic, and uninterested in exploring honest disagreements or seeking ways to bridge them.

That’s why I was honored to host two extraordinary panels at AEI yesterday in which an array of educational leaders had a hard-hitting but remarkably civil conversation about race, social justice, and school reform. The gathering was co-hosted with the NewSchools Venture Fund and Education Next, and we were joined on the afternoon by a few hundred parents, policymakers, and educators. The result: the participants modeled what it looks like to tackle these issues in a vigorous, constructive way. You can see the video here.

A few things struck me in the course of the conversation.

There was a willingness to talk frankly but in measured tones about disagreements. Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute pointed out that, for more than a decade, education reform has been approached as a race-based endeavor and questioned the wisdom and the desirability of this shift. After all, a good chunk of (mostly right-leaning) Americans are opposed to race-based policy. They regard affirmative action and racially targeted programs as divisive and an affront to constitutional guarantees that all citizens will be treated equally. Many others, obviously, think race-conscious policies are essential if “equal protection” is to be more than a hollow phrase. That disagreement frames so much of the current debate in school reform, and we need more blunt, civil, and face-to-face discussion on this score.

There was a recognition that groupthink is a problem for all of us. AEI’s Andy Smarick observed, “We all tend to surround ourselves with people who agree with our views. Then we wind up with an echo chamber. My big epiphany is to do a much better job of talking to one another and hiring people who have different views. If everyone on a leadership team answers questions the same way, that’s a problem.” It’s easy to assume that reasonable people see things the way we do, and people who disagree must be uninformed or ill-intended. The only way to conquer that, as Education Post’s Marilyn Rhames observed, is to develop relationships with those who see things differently.

Several panelists noted that understanding history and context can help us make sense of where others are coming from and illuminate our varied motivations and disagreements. Marquette University’s Howard Fuller explained that the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program only came about because the state legislature rejected an earlier push to break up the Milwaukee school system and create an all-black district. He noted that the coalition that enacted the program included people with stark differences, and their motivations “had nothing to do with Milton Friedman or markets or ideology or any of that. It was simply that we wanted our kids to be educated and that, if the existing structure could or would not do it, we needed to do something differently.” The inevitable question is how to uphold our principles while working with those with whom we disagree on other big questions.

Fuller argued that ideological line-drawing frequently misses the mark. To him, our “public school system” is really just a “delivery system” for public education. Fuller said, “Just because I don’t support the traditional delivery system doesn’t mean I’m an enemy of public education.” He elaborated, “I’m not committed to an institutional arrangement, charter schools or any of that. If you do, you become a protector of the status quo. You have to be committed to the purpose, which is educating the public.”

Jason Crye of Hispanics for School Choice argued that the way race gets framed in education debates can feel out of step with the real world. In his experience, the conversation tends to focus on white and black, and a lot of Latinos and Hispanics don’t see themselves in the black experience or in advocacy efforts like “Black Lives Matters.” He argued that many in the Latino community reject notions of hyphenated citizenship and think, “I’m an American. Isn’t that enough?” Crye provided an important reminder that the lines in the race conversation can get drawn and understood in very different ways.

In one of the better analogies I’ve heard in a long time, Education Post’s Chris Stewart noted that reformers can come across to parents and communities as “the worst first date ever.” He said, “Ed reformers are just waiting for their turn to talk. They only want to talk about themselves. Anything you say, they just want to tell you, ‘Charter schools are great.’ A parent can tell them, ‘I broke my foot.’ And a reformer will say, ‘You know what’s good for that? Charter schools!’”

After the event, I found myself with a few lingering questions.

One is how much motivation matters. If we disagree with someone on why something is good, how much should that matter? Should we ignore motivation and make common cause when possible, or should we be concerned about the larger agendas of our allies?

A second question is how to avoid caricaturing those with different causes, views, and experiences. It’s easy to make assumptions, especially when we don’t know someone. The best way to avoid that is to get to know people. The question is how to do better when dealing with people we don’t know and may not get to meet.

A third question is whether adults in education can do a better job of modeling civil discourse than we see writ large in America right now, or if we’re inevitably trapped within the nation’s larger polarization. Educators and those involved in education policy and advocacy have sought the responsibility of teaching the values we cherish and rearing citizens. Whatever our nation’s larger travails, can those of us who’ve chosen this work model the civil virtues that we want our children to emulate?

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