Saturday, October 20, 2012

Voter Suppression, the Education System and This Blog

I’m going to dedicate one last email to the voter suppression debate because it prompted me to write more broadly about how I think both about the battle to improve our educational system as well as this blog.

A reader wrote:

I must, at this point, take exception with your using this blog for Democratic Party political purposes. This blog is too important to the urban education crisis to take on divisive political issues. The urban education issue is not a political issue, it is a moral crisis. As a registered Republican in the community with the lowest black male graduation rate in the country, (Rochester NY) I do not see it as an economic or political issue. This is oppression. Whether intended or not, the oppressed are still oppressed.

Your blog is a reference point, an anchor, for concerned citizens who want change. The purpose of your blog is the greater common good, the moral right. When you are tempted to drift off into political issues you put the greater cause at risk by involving it in such. I encourage you to reconsider involving your blog in politics. It's cause is far greater.

Here’s my reply:

Let me get this straight: in a large percentage of the emails I send out, I kick the sh*t out of the Democratic party (or at least a Democratic politician) for selling out poor and minority kids in exchange for the votes and money from the teachers unions, and I don't hear anything from you. But heaven forbid I call out the Republican party for engaging in a calculated, national voter suppression effort carefully targeted at people who tend to vote Democratic, which has an obvious racially disparate impact and harkens back to the days of poll taxes, and you cry that I'm using "this blog for Democratic Party political purposes." Surely you can see the irony and hypocrisy in what you’re saying to me???

I'm glad you wrote what you did, however, because you’ve given me the opportunity to clear up some misunderstandings, both about this issue as well as my blog.

Allow me to start with a bold and seemingly counterintuitive statement: our educational system is NOT broken (hat tip to Joel Klein for opening my eyes on this). Instead, it operates JUST THE WAY IT’S DESIGNED TO – to provide lots of good jobs for the adults in the system and lots of political power for the politicians who defend it. Regarding the latter, the school system is the largest employer in most big cities and the largest budget item in most state and city budgets, and thus politicians at all levels can count on it for a huge number of votes, on-the-ground foot soldiers, and donations, not to mention patronage jobs, graft, and corruption.

As for the adults who work in the system, the trends over the past few decades have been: a) more jobs; b) higher pay; c) shorter hours; d) better benefits; and e) more iron-clad job security. Do you think adults are willing to fight to keep these trends in place? YOU BET! So it’s not at all surprising that the most powerful interest groups in the country have sprung up to maintain/defend/expand this system, and they have immense political power.

Thus, I think the battle to improve our educational system is intensely political. After years of focusing my attention solely on fantastic on-the-ground programs like TFA and KIPP, I came to realize that all the great programs in the world would make little difference to 99% of kids unless the system changes. To paraphrase: IT’S THE SYSTEM STUPID! And, obviously, it’s a governmental system, which means it’s ultimately controlled by politicians, which means that to bring about change, we must change the political dynamic.

If those on the other side – the people who are getting screwed by a system that’s run for adults, not kids – had equal political power, then it would be a fair fight – but of course they don’t. In reality, there’s a huge political inefficiency here that results in the system being highly resistant to change, even when everyone has known for decades that the system is delivering far too little in the way results given the amount of money we’re spending (second highest per pupil spending in the world after Switzerland; see page 15 of my school reform presentation, which is posted at:; a video of me presenting this is at:

Why is there such a huge political inefficiency? It’s not because kids don’t vote and don’t have a union (though this is, of course, true) because the 50 million kids in our K-12 public schools today obviously have roughly 50 million parents (assuming two kids/family), a number that far exceeds the six million or so adults in the system. So why aren’t these 50 million adults at the barricades, offsetting the power of the unions? There are many reasons:

·        Most parents instinctively trust schools and believe that if a child isn’t learning, it’s likely the fault of the child or the parents, not the schools.
·        Some parents (though I don’t think very many) just aren’t that focused on their kids’ education – perhaps because they’re dealing with a lot of problems in their own lives.
·        The adults in the system are HIGHLY incentivized – it’s their livelihoods – whereas the quality of their child’s school is one of only many things parents care about.
·        The adults know EXACTLY what the consequences will be if there are changes to things like pay, hours, benefits, job security rules, etc., whereas the things parents care about, such as a good principal, a high-quality teacher in every classroom, and a safe environment, are harder to define and measure.
·        The schools don’t provide good data to parents, so many don’t know how little their kids are actually learning – after all, they always come home with nice report cards!
·        It’s really hard to organize parents (for example, see the struggles depicted in Won’t Back Down), whereas the adults in the system are comparatively easy to find, communicate and hold meetings with, etc.
·        The adults collect well over a BILLION dollars each year in mandatory paycheck deductions to pay for organizational infrastructure, political donations, lobbyists, etc., whereas there’s virtually no money to organize parents.
·        Most students attend a school that’s average (read: mediocre) – and who storms the barricades to protest average???
·        There are very few truly catastrophic schools, where, for example, the hallways aren’t safe. Of the 100,000 schools in this country, 14,000 are high schools and, of these, only 2,000 produce half the dropouts, so that’s only 2% of schools. But for every violent dropout factory, there are many more “happy schools” (hat tip to Howard Fuller) – schools in which the students are happy, the parents are happy, the teachers are happy and the principal is happy – the only problem is that the children can't read! To the untrained eye, in the absence of data, these happy schools appear fine – yet by failing to give most kids even a basic education, they deliver most poor and minority kids to high schools THREE YEARS BELOW GRADE LEVEL! Needless to say, very few of these kids will ever finish high school, so the problem isn’t limited the 2,000 dropout factories. No doubt they’re really crappy schools, but equal blame goes to the K-8 “happy schools.”
·        Lastly and most importantly, the political inefficiency boils down to POWER AND MONEY, which (along with votes) are what politicians and government-run systems respond to. There are two parts of this argument:

a) First, a large number of people with power and money don’t fight to change the system because they have the means to exercise parental choice: they opt out of the system and send their kids to private school (as I do). If you don’t have a direct interest in something – if it doesn’t affect you PERSONALLY – then you’re unlikely to storm the barricades to change it. Famed investor Warren Buffett was once asked what he would do if he were czar and he replied something along these lines: “I think the decline of our public education system is one of the greatest tragedies that has ever befallen our country. And there’s a simple way to fix it: require that EVERY family has to send every child to a RANDOMLY SELECTED public school in their metropolitan area.” In other words, nobody can opt out. I can assure you that if the wealthy people in my neighborhood had to send their kids to a randomly selected NYC public school, the system would change so fast that it would make your head spin!

b) Conversely, the people most being screwed by the existing system – poor and minority parents and their children – have less power and money than any other group in the country. Why do you think the schools in my neighborhood, the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the wealthiest census tract in the US, are mostly decent, while they're terrible in NYC's poorer neighborhoods (similar disparities exist pretty much everywhere in the US)? We have money and power! The NYC DOE could never get away with putting a high concentration of crappy principals and teachers in my neighborhood, but there are a lot of them in the system because it’s hard to identify them (due to the lack of a good evaluation system) and, even if you do, it’s virtually impossible to remove them thanks to union contracts. But they have to go SOMEWHERE, and you can’t put them in MY neighborhood, so big bureaucracies to the logical thing: stick the teachers and principals who are inexperienced rookies, burned out veterans hanging on for their pension, etc. in the South Bronx, central Brooklyn, and other neighborhoods where the parents don’t have the MONEY AND POWER to fight this outrage.

My guess is that, at this point, you’re nodding your head vigorously in agreement. But you shouldn’t be, because this is what you wrote: “The urban education issue is not a political issue, it is a moral crisis…I do not see it as an economic or political issue. This is oppression.” Yes, it’s oppression and, yes, it’s a moral crisis, but it’s absolutely an economic issue (you don’t think living in poverty, being hungry, lacking access to basic medical care, having an unstable housing situation, etc. affects a child’s ability to do well in school and learn?! More on this below) and, to address it, it’s as much of a political issue as an educational one. While there’s lots more that we need to learn about how to address this crisis, the broad outlines are pretty clear – yet real change is still rare and slow because of the POLITICAL dynamic.

With all this as background, I hope you understand why I completely, totally, and emphatically reject your recommendation that I should “reconsider involving [my] blog in politics” because by “drift[ing] off into political issues” I’m “put[ting] the greater cause at risk.” Rather, through this blog, I always have and always will address the political issues that are inextricably linked to improving the educational system in the U.S. and ensuring that (to borrow TFA's motto) "one day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education."

Furthermore, I hope you now understand why I made a partisan attack on the Republican party for its voter suppression efforts aimed at the poor and minorities, who don’t have much money or power, but they DO potentially have a lot of votes. But this voting power is greatly diminished by the fact that they register and vote in low numbers – and then, on top of this, your party is trying to further diminish their voting (and therefore political) power, making a bad problem worse. If you truly care about disadvantaged kids trapped in failing schools, the best thing you can do is to fight for better schools – but the second best thing you could do is fight to INCREASE, rather than decrease, the political power of the parents of these kids. If voter registration AND participation among low-income adults went to 95% (which is the rate in Australia, where voting is compulsory, like jury duty), I have no doubt that schools serving poor kids would be better funded, politicians would stand up to a much greater degree to unions that tried to protect mediocre (or worse) teachers, etc.

I’ve found that many Republicans don’t seem to understand this political dynamic – mainly, I think, because they don’t want to: it creates a lot of cognitive dissonance, as increasing the number of poor and minority voters wouldn’t be in their party’s political self-interest. I wish certain Republicans would at least be honest about it and say:

“I care about helping every child in this country get a fair chance in life – but the way I want to do it is by kicking the sh*t out of the teachers unions because it’s consistent with my political views and is my party’s self-interest. But count me out when it comes to supporting things to help kids like increasing the voting power of their parents and maintaining an adequate safety net to keep millions of poor families from being totally destitute because these things aren’t consistent with my political views and my party’s self-interest.”

Speaking of the safety net, this fight isn't about improving education – it's about making sure EVERY child gets a fair shot in life. Of course, a good education is a critical component of that, but everything that goes on in a child’s life outside of the school is enormously important as well. Contrary to what opponents of reform say, we reformers have never denied the critical importance of the many non-school factors in the lives of children: obviously, things like poverty, hunger, illness, homelessness, proper nutrition, how parents speak to children, whether someone reads to them, etc. matter a HUGE amount. That doesn’t mean schools get a pass, of course – no matter what’s going on in a child’s life, schools should be held accountable for moving every child forward educationally at a reasonable rate – but as we think about how to make sure every child gets a fair shot in life, we should be thinking about issues far beyond the four walls of a school.

It reminds me of what famed doctor Paul Farmer said about the health clinics he runs in Haiti and Rwanda (he’s the subject of Tracy Kidder’s wonderful book, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World; He pointed out that most international health programs are focused on a particular disease like AIDS, malaria, etc., which results in absurdities like patients coming into a clinic to receive their AIDS meds yet then die of starvation the next day. He said his clinics try to treat the whole patient and, if they’re hungry, they provide a proven solution to the problem: FOOD!

For example, I think that cutting the child poverty rate from 23% today to, say, 10% would likely give more children a fair shot in life than EVERY educational reform put together. To do this, we’d have to expand various government programs that comprise the safety net like food stamps, unemployment benefits, temporary cash payments (welfare), housing vouchers, etc., but instead the Republican party has fought tooth and nail to slash all of these programs based on the rationale that we can’t afford such a “generous” safety net (though, apparently, we can always afford another tax cut, especially one aimed at the wealthy) and/or that these programs sap individual initiative and create dependency. Reasonable people can disagree on what we can afford and how these programs affect adults, but there’s not much doubt about the impact on poor children – and their educational opportunities – when the safety net is slashed.

In summary, far from backing away from partisan commentary that irritates some of my readers, as you can see from the last few paragraphs (and the PPS below), I intend to blast BOTH parties on ALL issues that relate to every child getting a fair shot in life, whether it’s directly related to schools or not.

PS—I was a little arrogant when I wrote in my last email that “Obama’s going to eke out a victory in 2½ weeks (it’s 70% likely today), despite this being an election that Romney SHOULD WIN given the state of the economy...” Though Obama is 2:1 likely to win right now – see:, this election is going to be VERY tight and a lot could change in the next 16 days, so I should have written: “If Obama wins, as he is currently favored to do…”

PPS—For more on some of the topics discussed above, I’ve pasted below two long emails that I sent around last December, which, prior to this week’s email, set the record for volume and intensity of response. In them, I addressed “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.” I then went on to write: “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:

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:
Email #1: Sent Dec. 14, 2011

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:]
·         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:]
·         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)…
Email #2: Sent Dec. 15, 2011

1) My last email set a record for responses.  Before I get to them, I think it’s only fair, having in my last email channeled my inner minority leader to write some very strong anti-Republican stuff, to turn the tables and channel my inner Republican and present the argument for why the Republican party is NOT “waging war” against the poor and minorities.  It would go something like this:

As a Republican, I don’t view the world through a race-based lens, which I think is dangerous and un-American.  Instead, I’m in favor of policies that create freedom, opportunity, growth and wealth for ALL Americans.  It is this, not government handouts, that is most likely to lift your community out of poverty (along with reforming the schools, the need for which I’m glad we both agree on). 

We’re already overtaxed so we need to hold the line on taxes (or, ideally, reduce them). In addition, we need to reduce the size of government, which is stifling our economy and job growth, severely impairing our freedoms and, financially speaking, is on a trajectory that will surely bankrupt us.  Italy anyone? 

As for government programs that benefit the poor, elderly, and unlucky, obviously there should be some safety net, but this needs to be balanced with fiscal realities as well as the very real problem of creating long-term dependence.  I recall that Democrats went berserk over welfare reform, yet this ended up benefiting, not hurting, most recipients.  In addition, many government programs are wasteful and corrupt – for example, see this article from the front page of yesterday’s NYT:

One final point: when more than 90% of blacks and nearly 70% of Latinos vote Democratic, why would you expect the Republican party to look out for their interests? 

Though I don’t agree with most of this argument, I think it’s a reasonable point of view.  But that doesn’t change the point in my last email: the argument I’ve outlined above isn’t going to change most minorities view that the Republican party is hostile to their interests.

By the way, regarding channeling anyone, a couple of readers thought it was patronizing for me to write about what I thought someone else was thinking.  I totally disagree.  The natural human inclination is to view everything through one’s own eyes, but this is a recipe for disaster.  If you want to be successful in ANYTHING that requires interaction with others (business, advocacy, being a good spouse, parent, friend, etc.), it’s critical to be able to put your own viewpoint aside and instead try to put yourself in someone else’s head and see things based on THEIR thinking, history, life experiences, etc. 

2) Not one person disagreed with my assessment that “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.”  (A friend in California, however, wrote: “That is really not true here in Los Angeles and that is why it's working.”)  There is widespread agreement that this needs to be a top-of-mind issue, but one friend asked a great question: what, specifically, should we do to change things?  Some thoughts:

·         We need to be doing a lot more outreach and listening.
·         We should be encouraging the formation of and funding grassroots parent and community organizations around this issue – things like Gwen Samuel’s State of Black CT Alliance (, Parent Revolution (, Harlem Parents United (, etc.  Ditto for new teacher organizations like Educators 4 Excellence ( organizations need to be genuinely owned and controlled by the people on the front lines.
·         The boards of directors of school reform organizations need to be much more diverse (defined broadly).
·         Charter schools boards should have parent and perhaps community representatives.

Here is Jeanne Allen of The Center for Education Reform on this:

I have to tell you, Whitney. The main reason that poor and minority communities fail to engage in our movement has very little to do with elected Republicans or Democrats and everything to do with us.

As a movement (and I've seen this first hand for more than 20 years) we believe advocacy is when a professional shows up in their friend the majority leader's office and has a good meeting. Too many in well-funded positions believe that advocacy is when the head of an association goes to the Capitol for a meeting.  Too many believe that having a rally with 2,000 children is enough to demonstrate power. Those 2,000 children, their parents, their teachers who may have gone to the Capitol to get engaged rarely get contacted to go to their legislator's home office, get good advice or guidance or even get pulled into the parties, receptions and local community events we go to. What's worse is, nearly the entire reform funding community, no matter what their ideological leanings, fund real, grassroots efforts. Real grassroots efforts are on the ground, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, long-term, sustainable, education efforts to engage and fortify REAL people, to be REAL voices. Neither ConnCan, nor Stand nor any of those who claim to do grassroots do it. They involve grassroots and they have successes, but your assertion -- that we have failed to build a broad and diverse base of support -- is directly rooted in a lack of appreciation for or commitment to engaging in very, very, difficult work that is required. Funders care more about seeing high level tactics employed, or sexy spokespeople over the front pages of the papers. Meanwhile, those papers and high level tactic are completely absent from the homes of the people we most need involved NOT because they don't understand or can't read, but because they are busy staying alive and paying their bills. 

This is a failure of the infrastructure of the reform movement. It is not a failure of our political leaders, Rs or Ds.  Rich White Republicans or poor Republicans are not to blame for minority voices being central to reform. In fact, look at the marketing for Waiting for Superman, which, despite people like me and Kevin Chavous telling them they had to go to the real grassroots, engaged United Way, Communities in Schools, the Business Roundtable, to do that work (which they can't.) That's not rich or white or republican or democratic failures. It's the failure of people who love and advance an issue through their own, narrow (albeit powerful) lenses and fail to recognize that the marketing and lobbying firms they hire are clueless about what is really necessary to truly make progress.

So the solution is learning first what real advocacy is, and how to truly empower voices of those most disenfranchised. Howard Fuller is distinct among our entire movement for knowing this first hand. Others can and have already begun to take his lead -- BAEO at the top of the list. But we need more, and those of us who get it, and know how to do it, are a vocal, but a big minority in the reform movement, who lack the resources and the recognition of those who have the resources as to what where they really should be putting their money.

Thanks for letting me share.

I’d welcome further ideas and examples/case studies, which I’m happy to share.

3) Turning to the feedback, here’s a sampling:

Thank you for addressing this topic. This is a great email – and it helped me to sort through some ideas that have been rattling around in my head for quite some time.


Boy, that one felt good.  Working for [an ed reform advocacy organization], I get beat up by Dems and R's, so this email felt like I attended a social support group.  Thanks Whitney.


I really applaud the sentiment of this email. I think you are right to bring these issues to the fore in an honest way.


Thanks to this email, I finally understand the push back, which felt so irrational to me. It now makes sense. However, as a Republican, it was painful to read your channeling of a black community leader. As you admit, this is a mischaracterization of Republican views/intent, and it saddens me to no end why both sides continue to create false dichotomies, including impoverished minorities.


Thanks for the very thoughtful email.  I think you channeled the skepticism that many Black and Latino - and other people who think of themselves as progressive - leaders have when confronted with someone who allies themselves with "education reform."   I am fairly regularly challenged on these grounds in the civil rights circles in which I travel.

You suggest that you don't agree with the skepticism - but it is pretty persuasive.  I will be wildly curious to hear how people who care about education but are Republicans answer.


I really appreciate your comments, as a person of color, and one who has run organizations really funded by the rich White republicans, it has been extremely difficult to straddle the line between the community and the funders.  And in my opinion, there is also sometimes a distorted and condescending view of the needs of urban students, where folks feel like they are experts because they watched season 3 of "The Wire".  And this often plays out where there is a preference for schools that will (in my words) "civilize" the students -- they don’t need arts and music or critical thinking -- they need to learn rules and to respond to behavioral cues, and order for these students is a prime goal-- where if you go to the suburbs -- to good schools -- that is not the case.  

I realize foundational skills need to be taught, but in general the more I deal with the rich folks -- the less I want to (and I would assume that I am somewhat representative) so to get to real reform, there needs to be a bridge to this gap.  I don’t have the answer, beyond more esoteric ideas of real empathy for the students.  But as long as we are in this place, there really is only so far that reform can go.  Appreciate the note and I hope others will not react defensively but think hard about the words and solutions.

I loved this reply from Steve Brill:

This actually reflects one of the conversations I actually had with Bill Perkins when reporting for the book. It’s almost like you were there.


A few months ago I had lunch with two [state university] professors interested in education, one of whom I know well and respect highly.  They both believe that education reform is really a sneaky attempt by the wealthy to undermine public education in order to maintain the class divide.

Yes, I'm serious.

I was utterly astonished to hear this.  Of course it makes no more sense than the right wing theory that Obama is trying to intentionally destroy the economy in order to usher in a socialist revolution, but apparently these two professors...and presumably legions more...have at least one thing in common with the Tea Party faithful: rock solid conviction.

As you note in your email, overcoming this misperception might be our biggest obstacle.  (Well, that and countering the clever union propaganda that anti-unionism is synonymous with blaming the teachers.)


You are 100% on the mark-- this time :-)  Our experience, from dealing with parents in [an urban district in New Jersey]:
- not only are they not aligned with the school choice movement
- but their experience of charter schools is that mostly they fail-- which is true in [my district]
- and they either don't understand vouchers (OSA) or they misunderstand them as a "Christie conspiracy," ultimately benefiting the "haves".

However, their spirit is amazing: a core constituency fiercely continues the decades-long fight to reform their catastrophically failing school system.  The only hope is their years of frustration with a school system

And from a friend “who has been both a Democrat and a Republican and is currently enamored of neither!”:

I'm surprised you didn't also note that "rich white Republicans" are commonly elected by voters who don't want many (or any) of "those kids" coming into their own "good" schools, creating choice policies and programs "for thee but not for me."

I also have to point out that combating poverty is not the only justification for school choice, any more than "saving the bluefin tuna" is the only justification for responsible stewardship of the planet's oceans.

And this from Bruno Behrend of the Heartland Institute:

As a (not as) rich (as you) white guy who grew up in the suburbs (Lake Forest, IL), I can sympathize with the gist of this post. But that is all we should do - sympathize.

The fact is that the local machinery protecting the bureaucracy-based jobs of urban school district is a powerful barrier to the advancement of their own disadvantaged community. In a microcosm, they are the 1% who got into the protected school apparatus, and their drive to keep their jobs are keeping the 99% poor, broke, and ignorant.

I wish this were not so, but that is how it is working out.

Take a $100,000 bureaucrat salary and ask how many kids could fill slots in new charters or Catholic schools with empty seats? Ipads/Tablets?

The 6.3 million people in public ed (nationally) are made up of 3.2 million teachers and 3.1 million "admin and support." By aggressively triggering failing urban schools to charters or other individualized options, we could drop that massive over-investment in make work jobs, and dramatically improve the lives of millions of disadvantaged urban kids.

Again, I sympathize, but if confronted with the urban skeptic on this "jobs" issue, I'd point out that they are clinging to a failed model that is going away anyway, and they should embrace the transformation that helps the many, not the few.

PS - IMO, Suburban Whites are the REAL power base supporting the status quo, and the progress made over the last few years has come from THEIR questioning of this failed system.

While we should never take our eye off the achievement gap, I think it is the suburban soccer mom who holds the key to reform. When they turn on this system, it will fall. Sadly, not all of their motives are pure. District lines keep out the "riff-raff," and they are quite happy believing their schools are good. They are very susceptible to the lie that charters and choices will hurt their kids.

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