In the fight for educational justice we can’t be fooled by anti-reform careerists


As an education activist I encounter a lot of people fighting for educational equity and social justice. Many of them have contracts or salaries or grants connected to the cause of “equity” or “justice,” so much so I fear those concepts are actually being gentrified by people who can hardly define inequity or injustice.

Many of them know what’s best for all kids, theirs and mine. Even when their work in our communities has failed, they are still the experts in their own minds.

And, what I hear often is that education won’t work for everyone until they can defeat some nefarious “other” who is holding success hostage.

I’m reminded of my uncle Joe who once said to me “son, I’m not asking that you be the smartest man in the world, just don’t be stupid.” He often talked about fools, and what fools do, and what fools believe. It made me ever conscious of what might make me foolish.

In line with uncle Joe is Malcolm X’s quote that says “only a fool would let his enemy teach his children!

That’s comes from a place far more raw than most of us want to go while we have tidy little discussions about teacher effectiveness, block scheduling, longer school days, and so on. It goes to a place where real talk about race and the racialized structure of today’s (and yesterday’s) educational system opens the possibility that schools are not failing, they are doing exactly what they were designed to do. They were never “great.” At least not for us.

While it is always debatable who our enemy might be, we know today’s school districts are not the answer for providing a life-saving education to perishing communities. The current systems produce so few literate or numerate African Americans that it continues our oppression rather than cures it.

And those who earn a living opposing changes to the system are not friends in our struggle for justice no matter how many COEXIST stickers they affix to their Prisus’.

The fact is “reform” is too polite a word to address the gross dysfunction of what we call schools. This is not the civil rights issue of our time, it’s the abolition issue. “Reform” assumes we can “fix” the current system with a few technical tweaks. Abolition assumes the system is tore up from the floor up.

Call me an abolitionist.

Like the days of abolition, there is a hostile, binary conversation between groups who get so savage with each other it looks like white-on-white crime. It’s the Corporatists vs. the Unionists, and they lock horns by trading warring reams of research and exchanging cold accusations that raise suspicions about the motives of their opponents.

With a national discussion framed this way black and brown folks are spectators. We watch people talk about us from the cheap seats.

Then, we get knocks on our doors or requests for individuals to attend our churches or community meetings in the hopes of recruiting us. It’s never really an invitation for us to drive our own agenda or develop our own educational theories for change, even when the organizers say it is.

They want black and brown voices to blackwash agendas that will never empower us to be a self-determined people. They even set up urban Afro-turf groups or pay withering civil rights organizations to manufacture approval of their monopoly on education.

As people of color we are not targets of their obsession because they love us, we are targets because black and brown headcounts fund their summer trips to Europe. Restricting us to only the buildings where they work is the fuel for their way of life.

We are children of a new plantation and black Average Daily Attendance is the new cotton.

So, seeing the game for what it is means we have to be shrewd consumers of the debate. We have to be sober and ruthless. Our children are just that – our children. Nobody has a right to them but us. It’s our job to keep them out of the wrong hands.

Observing our own history is key. In each of our battles for full humanity there have been gatekeepers to justice who earned their keep from the system we were trying to overcome. And the gatekeepers always had a moral rationale for how depriving us of freedom was in our best interest.

During the American slavery era those who profited from the institution said God made blacks to be slaves.

During Jim Crow whites seeking the economic advantage from segregation said God purposefully separated the races.

During the Affirmative Action battles of the post-civil rights era those with an interest in maintaining white privilege in employment argued that personal merit separated blacks from upward mobility.

They all had an economic interest in preventing major changes to the institutions that paid them. And they all accused reformers of being interlopers, profit seekers, carpet-baggers, and elitists for attempting to change their way of life.

Now, in education, we hear echoes of the past.

Today’s white institutional liberals are actively persuading the public to believe that the mis-education of black and brown children is the result of poverty and poor parenting, not the institution of schooling from which they draw paychecks.

We are to believe that the Great American School System is just fine – the children are jacked up. Unionized teaching forces and the colleges of education that supply them with candidates from the bottom of the college pool are holding up such a great “profession” that is so special it can’t even be evaluated. And we are led to believe that when the system fails people of color it is not because the system was designed to sort children by class and race and concern itself with the reproduction of inequities, it’s because we haven’t pumped enough money into it and the “professionals” haven’t profited enough already.

We’ve seen this movie before, right? The system is blameless and the only way to fix oppression is to fix the condition of the oppressed.

Our “friends” on the Left are in a narcissistic state of self-preservation. Because they’re our friends we have to help them understand education of marginalized communities is not their strong suit. We have to invite them to be successful elsewhere. And, we have to disabuse them of any thoughts that our move to free our kids from a misfiring public education monopoly is like marching black children toward a “corporate” Pink Floydian grinder.

In the war for lives in our community we can’t allow the white left to make our expectation that our children read, write, and count synonymous with child abuse, teacher bashing, union busting, and abandonment of a democratized society.

We know that here in Humphrey-land our school systems were designed for white children to be educated by white educators who only recently discovered that Lake Wobegon is fiction, not our state biography.

I see it in retired educator Julie Landsman’s burning critique of so-called “no excuses” schools, those founded on the critical beliefs that black and brown children can become proficient in reading and math even when living in poverty; that great schools change the trajectory for low-income students for the better (and conversely, bad schools aggravate social inequities); and that teachers judged by the learning of their students are key agents in social progress.

She starts a recent article with a passage from Dickens meant to illustrate how toilsome life is in the new schools that aim at closing gaps in educational outcomes (and often succeed).

She says…

“When I began reading it [the passage from Dickens] on an airplane, I burst out laughing. I could not get out of my mind the latest “no excuses” schools, the many factory model classrooms that insist on obedience, insist on silence in the lunchroom, on walking down hallways without a sound.”

A more evolved view would honor the unique difficulties people of color face, and the need some of our youth have for order and discipline (some needing it more than others). Instead, Landsman applies a white middle-class lens to schools, and then prescribes white middle-class remedies. Her golden idea is more play time for a people who are drowning in an incredibly cruel economy that expects its participants to read and write, not master kickball.

And, she’s not alone. The pro-status quo movement is legion in Minnesota.

Take MN2020’s Policy Associate Michael Dietrich. Please.

In his series called “gaps of the day” he seems to trivialize unequal educational outcomes. With many education activists in our community decrying Minnesota’s nation-leading gaps in student achievement, he says it ain’t that bad. Given the enormous personal, social, economic, health-related, family, and community consequences of failing to educate black and brown children, what is the purpose of belittling unacceptable results?

Dietrich’s colleague, Steve Fletcher, takes defending the system to a higher level of zealotry.

As an operative for anti-reform unionists, he works hard to create the illusion of solidarity between communities of color and the anti-reformers who want to trap kids into failing unionized schools. His swan song is “saving” a school from closing where 11% of the students were proficient and no proficient student was a boy. At the time of the proposed closing the student body was so small that the school had only a third of the academic program of the best appointed district high schools, yet the “saved” school cost the district $4,000 more per child to mis-educate the students.

Nearly everything in Fletcher’s arsenal of ideas begins with teachers and their unions being the first consideration for how we order all public schools, and then he concludes with statements like this one:

Nobody actually thinks kids can learn as well when they show up hungry, traumatized, underprepared, and sick.

It’s funny that we are never more pathologized as when white liberals take up the cause of saving us.

I wish these were isolated accounts rather than an iceberg tip. It isn’t so. Landsman, Dietrich, and Fletcher are in very good company.  In addition to the leaders of the teacher unions and many public observers who believe voting for Obama vindicates all systems from charges of under-serving people of color, they are also joined by an activist network that include activist parent Sarah Lahm, Minneapolis teacher Robert Panning-Miller (of PEJAM), and integrationist  Myron Orfield.

Lahm is leading a middle-class rebellion against educational assessments and she appears ready to replicate the national effort by anti-accountability unionists to address the achievement gap by erasing the evidence that one exists.

Panning-Miller runs a angry teacher group called Public Education Justice Alliance of Minnesota (PEJAM). Saving education to them means consistently pursuing an agenda of anti-testing, anti-charter school, anti-teacher evaluation, anti-everything. They are mostly famous for connecting everyone by six degrees to the Koch Brothers.

They once connected my black ass to the billionaires. I wasn’t mad that they said it, I was mad that it ain’t true.

And, finally….

Myron Orfield, the integration fundamentalist with lots of academic time on his hands, who has just published a new report intended (once again) to suggest that charter schools drive segregation and do poorly with test scores.

There is nothing honest about the report, and it’s made twice more scandalous when you consider the fact that Orfield, our state’s leading expert on school integration, chose the least integrated school in all of Minneapolis Public Schools when it came time to enroll his own children. Seriously. His school of choice is so exclusive that the Fordham Institute labeled it one of America’s “private public” schools. It was also a school so resistant to integrating 14 poor black students that a third party evaluation recommended closing the integration program that brought the students there because the school wasn’t ready to support them. It was a hostile environment.

You can’t make this stuff up, but you wish you did.

Taken together these folks represent a dangerous movement. They justify inequitable systems by blaming poor outcomes on the condition of people of color. They ignore anything that is working for us outside of the plantations they control. And, then profit from it to feed their own families and educate their own children and to create inter-generational wealth.

That may sound harsh. But you want to know what is really harsh? The educational traps set by their collective anti-reform advocacy.

At some point we need to ask them to stop saving us. Stop positing new ideas to educate us. Stop profiting from teaching and consulting and running programs that have all of the icing of “equity” and “justice” but none of the cake. In the quest to close the wealth gap, and the power gap, we have no friends that discount the elasticity of our brains, or who suggest melanin and low income automatically justifies  low achievement on test scores for our children.

At the same time, we also have to defend our self-made solutions.  We have to honor and lift up those who are building the capacity in our communities to educate, feed, house, and govern ourselves without need for faulty outside saviors.

In our own community are educators who continue the legacy of black and brown education that started under trees and in black churches during slavery. These community members have created authentic solutions to our address education problems.

And yes, the vehicle for which their solutions work is the charter school.

Friendship Academy is operated by a lifelong black educator who has created a school where our children are loved, educated, and provided a safe, culturally affirming environment that is preparing them to be great community members.

ARCH Academy is similar in that it is run by an award-winning, crusading black educator who has created a strong vision for educating our children in a school designed for them, not a retrofitted school trying to catch up with where they are.

Likewise with the nationally recognized Harvest Network of schools, and Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul are both providing hope and achievement in the middle of cities that desperately need that.

The really good news: they aren’t the only ones. We have allies who also are breaking ground on educating the very children the anti-reform crowd say are too poor, hungry, and non-white to learn.

Two great examples come to mind.

Hiawatha Leadership Academy is knocking it out of the park with Latino and black students, including English Language Learners, to the point where they were dubbed “Minnesota’s most successful school.”

And, Friends of Education, a network of charter schools, is producing the goods for low-income students in a way that everyone else wishes they could. In their schools the majority of poor students are outperforming the state average for all students in Minnesota. Hunger and trauma be damned.

These are the schools that our local institutional liberals target for deep criticism while avoiding any honest analysis or self-reflection about industrialized school districts where their friends and family earn a living.

The real question for us is if non-traditional schools are producing students less likely to end up in prison or on welfare, who gives two squirts of piss what the institutional careerists and apologists think about it?

If their only solution is to trap us into schools where their teachers, most of whom do not live in the community where they teach, obsess about wages and pensions as they lord over failure factories that produce more social injustice than justice, of what value is their analysis?

At this point we don’t need to be the smartest people in the world to see the current system is broken and it isn’t because we are broken. Only a fool would believe the current “leaders” and their army of urban outfitted organizers or recruiters hold a ticket to freedom.

If we are foolish enough to believe what they say, we’ll be foolish enough to keep getting what they’ve already given us: schools that fund their lives while virtually ensuring our students will not live as well as they do.