I'm dedicating this entire email to one of the biggest obstacles that we reformers face: while the issue we're focused on disproportionately impacts poor and minority children, we're mostly a movement a rich white people in general (myself included), and rich white Republicans in particular. This must change if we are to achieve meaningful, enduring success. The messenger is often as important as the message.
I haven't written much about this in a while, but have been noodling about it after I wrote in item 12 of my last email about the jobs, poverty, and racial issues that affect school reform – issues "that reformers need to be very aware of and sensitive to. It helps explain a lot of otherwise inexplicable actions – and it's one of the reasons we created Democrats for Education Reform."
Regarding the issue of school systems being a major source of good jobs – and school reform being perceived (with good reason) as a threat to this – here is what I wrote in my last email:
When Republicans talk about reforming school systems and giving parents choice, many black leaders are thinking: "I know our schools are terrible (that's why I send my kids to better schools), but it's not certain that your proposed solutions are going to be any better – and it's almost 100% certain that your proposed solutions will cost my community good jobs. How can I support that, especially in these brutal economic times???"
One of my friends agreed, writing:
This is so true, and something I have encountered on the ground in several states. It cannot be underestimated, and it is a reasonable and understandable objection that has to be overcome. For many years the public school system was one of the few ladders of economic opportunity for African Americans, when most others were closed. When reformers denigrate "the system" or "the bureaucracy", they have to understand how this may sound. I learned it the first week I was in this fight in the 90's—a minister took me aside and said, "look, I know you're right on choice, but you have to understand—I can't support his publicly because all my Deacons and their wives are employed by the school system!"
But it's more than just jobs. It's also about poverty and its pernicious consequences, and how we have to be very aware of and sensitive to this. Here's the incomparable Howard Fuller's response to my email:
You are exactly on target with the issue of poverty. We cannot have people vote against all of the things poor families need – jobs, housing for low and moderate income families, health care, food programs, etc. – but then say, "But I support vouchers or charter schools." To help the students who need the help the most we need both things: parent choice and programs aimed at getting people out of poverty.
I had this discussion recently on a panel with a person who shares a lot of our views about ed reform but seemed to be making a case that to recognize the limitations of school would be somehow in opposition to the "no excuses" mantle that we should all have. There is a difference between recognizing the impact of race and class in America vs. using that impact as an excuse not to educate kids. We are not going to be taken seriously if we somehow get contorted into a position of arguing the being homeless and sleeping in a car doesn't impact your readiness and/or your capacity to learn.
We cannot do what the protectors of the status quo do: begin with talking about poverty and end with talking about poverty. NO! We must begin with our unequivocal stance that poor children can accomplish great things in spite of the cards they have been dealt. But, to act as if we do not understand the difficulties of overcoming the odds of not having the level of resources that are needed to be productive participants in our society makes no sense. We must fight a two-pronged battle, but we can never cede the point some try to make: that we must eliminate poverty before we can have good schools. But nor can we be oblivious to the negative impact on our kids when they lack the minimal resources needed to prepare them to come to school.
But it's more than just jobs and poverty too: there are ENORMOUS issues of race, class and political orientation that are big problems for reformers. I'm treading on a very touchy subject here, but I feel the need to address it – at the cost of both airing some of our dirty laundry and also perhaps further antagonizing my Republican friends – because it's so important. My main message is that every one of us needs to be very aware of how we (as individuals, the organizations we represent, and our movement) are perceived, so that we can take steps to address this problem.
Allow me to give you an example of what I'm talking about. When a rich white Republican shows up in the office of a black or Latino political or community leader, here's what I think that leader, in most cases, is probably thinking (note that this isn't me speaking – it's what I perceive others to be thinking – and, yes, I'm being deliberately provocative to make a point):
I'm getting really tired of rich white Republicans telling me what to do about the broken schools in my community. Even if I put aside the jobs issue, and even if I believed that you were genuine in caring about the admittedly lousy schools in my community, I don't like or trust you one bit because on every other issue, you are waging war against me and my people. If you really gave a tinker's damn about my community, you'd see that the issues go far beyond the schools: job training, unemployment benefits, healthcare, social services, immigration, voting rights, etc. On EVERY one of these issues, everything you stand for is contrary to the interests of me and my people. Let me give you some examples:
· We finally got one of our own elected President and from the first day he took office, the Republican party's highest priority has been to tear him down and reduce the chances of his reelection, often via racially tinged attacks, regardless of the consequences for the country.
· The current leader for the Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich, has recently said outrageously insensitive, ignorant and borderline racist things about poor people. Is his best idea for teaching poor children the value of work to force them to "clean the bathrooms" and "mop the floors" in their schools, and does he really think that the most likely other life alternative for them is to become "a pimp, prostitute or drug dealer"??? [I am NOT making this up: see this excerpt from last night's Daily Show:www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-december-13-2011/newt-gingrich-s-poverty-code.]
· Republicans want to slash a wide range of social programs that help the poor, unemployed and unlucky. This terrible economy has hurt almost everyone, but disproportionately the people in my community. We're hanging on by a thread here – and Republicans are hacking away at that thread with gusto. I cannot think of a SINGLE government program that is helping my people stay afloat that the Republican party doesn't want to slash or eliminate entirely.
· Regarding taxes, Republicans are fighting to the death – to the point of being willing to have the U.S. default on its debts – to prevent the taxes of millionaires (and billionaires!) from going up by even a penny. Yet at the same time – this is the very definition of chutzpah! – they are also calling for even the poorest Americans to have to pay Federal income taxes (in addition to payroll, sales, and other taxes the poor already pay). And you accuse MY President of engaging in class warfare?!
· People in my community suffer from terrible health problems, due in part to lack of health insurance. Obamacare will help alleviate this, yet the Republican party is determined to repeal this.
· This year alone, Republican legislatures and governors in more than a dozen states have enacted new voting restrictions that are a blatant and despicable attempt to disenfranchise minority and low-income citizens [See this story in today's NYT:www.nytimes.com/2011/12/14/us/politics/in-speech-holder-to-critique-new-voting-laws.html.]
· Republicans seem to be trying to outdo each other in whipping up anti-immigrant, xenophobic hysteria (see Arizona and Alabama for the most blatant examples). The Latinos in my community, even the law-abiding, legal ones, feel like they're under attack and are afraid.
I could go on (and on and on), but you get the picture…
So even though I might agree with you on the urgent need to reform schools, as long as you're my mortal enemy on so many other issues, pursuing an agenda that would roll back the gains my people have made over the past few decades, I'm going to find it awfully difficult to join forces with you on school reform…
I'm sure that many of my readers are right now going berserk and drafting heated emails to me about to why the beliefs that I've outlined above are mistaken and misguided. Save yourself the time. These are not my views (not to this extreme, anyway), but rather my perception of the views of many (in fact, I'd guess most) leaders in minority communities across the country. It's a major explanation for why people like Bill Perkins and Hazel Dukes are fighting us, even when they must know, deep down, that most children in their communities are being horribly mis-educated.
My point here isn't to attack Republicans or rich white people of good will. We need all hands on deck and there are many important constituencies that we need to influence – like Republican politicians! – for whom rich white Republicans are the perfect ambassadors. But as a movement, we have so far largely failed to build a broad and diverse base of support, especially among minorities and in minority communities – and this is a HUGE area of weakness. Can you imagine if the Montgomery Bus Boycott had been rich white folks flying down to Alabama and protesting the discrimination against blacks by sitting with them in the back of the busses?! Successful social movements, like the civil rights movement, are bottoms up, not top down, and are "owned" by the people most affected. Many in our movement have figured this out and are taking important steps to, for example, engage poor/minority parents, bypassing conflicted and sometimes corrupt community "leaders", but much more needs to be done.
One final point: the toxic political environment and the near impossibility for Republicans and Republican-backed organizations to get any traction with Democrats for all of the reasons noted above is why a handful of us created Democrats for Education Reform. We got a lot of flak for putting "Democrats" in the name because it sounds exclusionary – don't we want Republicans to support school reform as well? – but it's necessary because only Democrats have a good chance of persuading other Democrats to move on this issue.
I think that what's happened in the last few years shows that our thinking on this has proven to be exactly right. It's astonishing – and wonderful! – to see how much the Democratic party has moved on this issue (though we still have a looooong way to go)…