Fostering a Productive Dialogue on Race, Social Justice, and School Reform

In late January 2017, about two dozen education leaders gathered to discuss the intersection between race, social justice, and school reform at a roundtable hosted by the American Enterprise Institute and NewSchools Venture Fund, and inspired by the previously published forum on race, social justice, and school reform in Education Next. The diverse group included individuals of different races, ethnicities, and political perspectives and with a variety of roles in education organizations. What follows is a summary of our conversation and a record of our commitment to engage in respectful and productive dialogue.



Each of us is deeply engaged in efforts to improve the education of young people in the United States, and we recognize the complexities of the task. We agree that all children—regardless of their backgrounds—deserve an education that meets their needs and that our systems of education are not working as well as they should for students of all incomes, races, and geographies.

We nonetheless differ in how we diagnose, prioritize, and address the challenges in education, in some cases reflecting very real differences in values and ideals. We did not reach consensus or resolve these tensions during our discussion; that was not our goal. We believe that consensus on such thorny issues would more likely signal superficial conciliation than productive deliberation. Instead, we sought to better understand the breadth of perspectives in the room and identify some practices that will better enable collaboration and promote the useful exchange of ideas.

We have different interpretations of the problems in education and therefore vary in our goals and approaches.

We recognize that black, Latino, Pacific Islander, and American Indian students have, on average, lower educational achievement and attainment than their white and Asian peers. We also know that these broad categories can mask variation within groups, such as the differential outcomes among students of different Asian nationalities. Most agree that a student’s socioeconomic status explains only some of the achievement gap, suggesting racial injustice is a separate, additional factor. We also recognize the particular needs of the Hispanic community and many other ethnic communities, whose experience in the United States is distinct from that of African Americans but whose children also face disadvantages inside and outside the classroom. Yet we differ in how we interpret and address these inequities.

Some participants have dedicated themselves to education to address the racial achievement gap. Among these participants, there are divergent viewpoints on how to do so. Do we best address inequity by ensuring that students of color have access to a rigorous, content-rich curriculum or that they attend schools that affirm their racial and ethnic identities through culturally responsive instruction? Are the two mutually exclusive? Many participants agreed that their work will not be complete until students have access to both.

Other participants indicated that their work in education is on behalf of all students. They worry that the education community’s increasing emphasis on policies and practices tailored to students of color runs counter to their belief that we should work to provide rigorous, high-quality education to every student. Some suggested that increasing the salience of race might in fact exacerbate racial grievances, divide us from one another, and lead us to dismiss other communities that are very much in need. Others mentioned that when we focus on specific groups it ignores the fact that our public education system is not working as well as it should for most students. Some people expressed frustration that, when they raise these questions, they are sometimes viewed as racist; they believe this assumption reflects the very biases we all seek to transcend.

There are costs and benefits to positioning educational improvement as part of the broader pursuit of social justice.

Another area of friction that emerged during our discussion is the relationship between social justice and education. Some voiced frustration with colleagues who view social justice issues—such as poverty, criminal justice, and immigration—as distractions from the core work of improving education. These individuals argued that social justice issues should be part and parcel of efforts to improve education. They believe that to pursue one without the other has little chance of success and challenged their colleagues’ assumption that they bring social justice into education debates as part of a broader political agenda. Instead, they view these issues as ubiquitous in their classrooms and the communities they serve, and they believe that high-quality classroom instruction demands recognition of the contextual issues that affect students and their ability to learn.

Some participants countered that policy issues often associated with social justice can divert attention and energy from necessary reforms that target the work of improving instruction and educational outcomes. Some believe different views on how to tackle social justice issues also exacerbate differences in our political philosophies and make it more difficult to make progress on areas of agreement.

Many expressed feelings of marginalization in discussions of education policy and practice.

Numerous participants who describe their political beliefs as “conservative” or “right of center” noted the disdain they have felt from colleagues in recent years. Eight years of a Democratic administration and activist US Department of Education left many with conservative views feeling alienated. In addition, some conservatives see an increasing alignment between the education reform community and the rhetoric, issues, and groups typically affiliated with the progressive left. A few right-of-center participants have felt pressured by those on the left that, to remain in the reform coalition, they must embrace progressive positions regardless of whether they hold opposing principles.

Participants acknowledged the general discomfort conservatives described, but noted that this sense of being marginalized or even derided is also a familiar experience for people of color. They highlighted some of the racial dynamics in the education reform community that have often made them feel like outsiders. For instance, they noted deep unease when white reformers shape policies and practices affecting predominantly black or Latino communities without engaging families or understanding their needs, and they reminded reformers that words like “militant” and “radical” can carry racial undertones and make black reformers question whether their white colleagues truly respect them. In addition, many participants noted that working with those who use this type of language can not only put black reformers at odds with activists within their own ethnic communities but also inadvertently embolden fringe groups.

Our conversation exposed some miscommunications, often rooted in false assumptions or different definitions of key terms.

It became clear throughout our conversation that, to foster better understanding, it is essential to avoid generalities and be specific. For instance, participants identified the need to avoid “putting people into boxes” based on their racial identity, political beliefs, or the professional company they keep. One individual noted that just because a person is black does not mean that he or she is a progressive. Another explained that the left-right binary in politics fails to capture the nuances of many people’s political beliefs; for instance, some indicated their own beliefs put them on the left on some issues and on the right on others.

In several instances, participants noted that shorthand terminology or expressions can make it difficult to pin down where we agree and where we do not. For instance, some participants seemed to have different ideas about what issues are included under the umbrella of social justice—health care, immigration, criminal justice, or opioid abuse among the white working class? Other participants questioned whether the group had a common definition of equity and whether the group was conflating social justice with identity politics. Many in the room believe that the word “movement” is misapplied in education because efforts to improve the policy and practice of education have often failed to engage families and parents. Finally, one participant introduced “targeted universalism” as a term and concept that challenges the dichotomy between serving all students and tailoring policies to the needs of specific student populations.

The group did not stop mid-discussion to parse the meaning of various labels or terms, but recognized how oversimplification and the lack of specificity can cause confusion.

These tensions have implications for our goals, tactics, and coalitions.

The group discussed how their disagreements about end goals and theories of change influence whether and how they might work together to advance ideas, policies, and practices on which they do agree. One individual noted that his primary interest is finding out when it is possible to work together, on a small slice of issues, for a small stretch of time.

In terms of tactical political efforts, some participants discussed how race-based framing might alienate Republican lawmakers and suggested that appealing to the white middle class could help make reform efforts more politically sustainable. They noted that those who disagree on the issue of vouchers can and should still work together when they agree on charters and that honest disagreement on Friday should not forestall collaboration on Monday. Finally, they expressed optimism that the reform community could leverage diverse viewpoints to build a more effective and inclusive coalition.

It is neither possible nor necessary to agree on everything. In fact, some participants reminded us that while we often talk about bipartisanship as though it has been strategic and broad, in reality most policy changes in the past 20 years were the result of tactical alliances on very specific issues. Participants expressed a willingness to work together whenever interests align, while being upfront and transparent about areas of disagreement that preclude collaboration.

Despite the tensions and differences described above, it became clear throughout our day together that every person in the room considers their work in education deeply personal. Some were anguished that colleagues overgeneralized or misunderstood their views or questioned their motives. Others shared personal stories of how limited access to educational opportunity directly affected their own lives. Improving the life outcomes of students is not only a profession but also a calling.

A Commitment to Respectful, Productive Dialogue

People come into the work of improving education with a variety of perspectives, and we believe our pluralism can be a strength rather than a weakness. We also know that in the course of conveying our views, we sometimes fall short. At times, our public discourse has poorly represented the views of those with whom we disagree, questioned their motives, or veered into personal criticism. Social media exacerbates these negative dynamics. These instances do not advance our important debates and are a poor service to those who look to us for leadership. We aim to do better.

It is in this spirit, then, that we commit to some norms for working together when we agree and for ensuring a productive discussion when we do not.

  • Practice Humility. We concede the limits of our own knowledge, admit that our understanding of an issue may be incorrect or incomplete, and commit to exploring disagreements with open minds.
  • Check Assumptions. We will not make assumptions about a person’s beliefs or ascribe malicious intent to those who hold views that conflict with our own.
  • Avoid Caricature. We will seek to represent our opponents’ arguments in terms they would recognize and avoid overly simplistic characterizations of their views.
  • Pick Our Battles. We will not shy away from important disagreements and debates, but neither will we amplify a conflict for the sake of settling scores.
  • Practice Courtesy. We will address personal disagreements through private conversation, limit our arguments to the issues, and refrain from personal gibes.
  • Affirm Common Values. At times of passionate disagreement, we will affirm each other’s sincere and heartfelt dedication to improving education and expanding opportunity for young people.
  • Build Relationships. We understand the importance of building relationships across differences and will seek to build trust with people we spar with in the public discourse.

Practicing these norms may make us uncomfortable at times. As public voices in the debates about education policy and practice, we acknowledge it is our responsibility to bear that discomfort, model a spirit of generosity, and hold our disagreements in hand while we continue to work together to provide students with the education they need and deserve.

Stacey Childress
Frederick M. Hess
Meghan Amrofell
John Bailey
Elisa Villanueva Beard
Derrell Bradford
Jason Crye
John Deasy
Howard Fuller
Kaya Henderson
Lindsay Hill
Bob Hughes
Frances Messano
Mildred Otero
Brittany Packnett
Michael J. Petrilli
Robert Pondiscio
Nina Rees
Marilyn Rhames
Andrew J. Rotherham
Stefanie Sanford
Andy Smarick
Marc Sternberg
Chris Stewart

Our Team in the News


Our staff has been busy appearing in print, on the radio, and television in support of school choice.

Jason Crye has commented on issues ranging from the lack of leadership in the Latino community when it comes to education reform, to the need for a more robust debate about school reform in rural parts of the country.

Tammy Olivas has worked to raise awareness of the deadlines and documents families need to get into the school of their choice during the Wisconsin enrollment period.  Our translation of the Wisconsin Private School Choice Programs Application can be found here.

See some highlights below!



Coverage of Jason Crye’s appearance at the “Race, Social Justice, and Education Reform” forum hosted by the American Enterprise Institute and the New Schools Venture Fund.



Jason Crye talks about why he supports Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary on the Joy Cardin Show.



Do rural communities benefit from education reform? We think so. Jason Crye explains why at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s blog, Flypaper.



We celebrated National School Choice Week as a home grown success story in Milwaukee!


Let Latino families liberate their children from bad schools

It’s time for Latino leaders to trust their constituents and support their educational choices.

In his 1968 book, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire wrote, “trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.

But too many champions of the Latino community, in Freire’s words, “substitute monologue, slogans, and communiqués for dialogue,” and “attempt to liberate the oppressed with the instruments of domestication.” Latinos—like everyone else—don’t need to be told what to do or what to believe. We need to be equipped with the tools necessary to reach our full human potential.

But above all else, we need to be trusted to navigate our own path towards liberation.

Si se puede was an effective slogan for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union in the 1970’s, but it has now become so commonly misused that it has lost most of its real meaning. For example, when chants of “si se puede” can be heard at teacher union led rallies—which reject a parent’s right to choose what they believe is the best educational option for their children—it has more to do with denying possibilities to children than anything else.

Despite Latino concerns in respect to President Donald Trump’s rhetoric regarding immigration, many Latinos continue to prioritize education above all else. According to the Pew Research Center, improving the educational system tops the list of Latino priorities for 2017. This is no surprise to those of us on either side of the school choice debate. We all agree that public education is failing too many of our most vulnerable children, and that something must change. What we disagree on is who we trust to make that change.

Many polls and surveys demonstrate the clear majority of Latinos support the idea of school choice. However, many well-intentioned Latino leaders will continue to deny them that freedom to choose. Instead, they insist that our community must stick together in solidarity to support the government run district schools. These leaders proclaim, among other things, that charter schools and voucher programs discriminate and were created by the affluent and predominately Anglo community to try to segregate poor Latinos and Blacks.

But even if charter schools and voucher programs were shown to have better results of desegregation than traditional district schools, it wouldn’t suddenly change these same opponents to champions of school choice. It wouldn’t change their current loyalties to teachers’ unions and other allies.

Freire insists that communities organize to fight for their rights and liberation. However, Freire warns that without trusting the people in their “pursuit of self-affirmation” even well intentioned leaders will—instead of liberating—often unknowingly become the oppressors themselves. Freire says, “Any situation in which ‘A’ objectively exploits ‘B’ or hinders his and her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression.”

Solidarity, according to Freire, is not so much to combine multiple causes (i.e. immigration, LBGT rights, economic inclusion, etc.) to attain more influence through larger masses of people. Instead, Freire insists that solidarity is the support given to individuals to help them through their struggle of self-liberation, and that the community leaders support this liberation process through dialogue and trust—not dictating with monologue and slogans. Freire goes on to say that, “Attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects…it is to lead them into the populist pitfall and transform them into masses which can be manipulated.”

Freire isn’t without his own pitfalls. His Marxist lens can obscure important ideas about human dignity. But much of what he had to say on this topic of liberation can enlighten my hermanos y hermanas who don’t currently support school choice.

Those who are still not convinced should trust the people to make their own decisions on whether to participate in a school choice program, as well as stand with them in true solidarity by fighting with them. This can only happen if education is regarded as distinct from the other “solidarity” issues.

Our Latino children’s education and future can no longer be held hostage by good intentions based on a false definition of solidarity.

This article, by our founder Zeus Rodriguez, originally appeared at The Hill.

School test score study in Wisconsin deserves attention

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) has done it again. A study released today that WILL is calling “the definitive look at school test scores in Milwaukee and Wisconsin,” provides an honest appraisal of Wisconsin schools.

Here are a few things that jumped off the page:

Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) specialty schools are no different than regular neighborhood MPS schools.

It is universally agreed that MPS specialty schools like Ronald Reagan and Golda Meir outperform most schools in Milwaukee.

The WILL study asks, “Why?”

It turns out that what these schools are doing has less to do with the success than what students are sitting in the classrooms. By controlling for students’ race and socio-economic status, the WILL study shows that MPS specialty schools do no better than traditional neighborhood schools and perform significantly lower than the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program averages.

In short, specialty schools that have selective admissions processes are more affluent and have less Black and Hispanic students than traditional MPS schools. These factors have a direct impact on their overall test scores.

The racial achievement gap exists

The study concludes that no matter what kind of school it is, if the student body is non-white, math proficiency rates are 46.5% lower and English proficiency rates are nearly 53% lower than schools that are all white.

That’s devastating. Perhaps it can be a rallying point for minority leaders in the community to unite around meaningful reforms to save Wisconsin’s minority kids?

University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee charters are best

 UWM is the leader when it comes to authorizing successful charter schools. The study shows that UWM charter schools have 9% higher proficiency rates in English and 7% higher proficiency rates in Math based on Forward exam scores.

That’s real progress and UWM deserves credit for fostering this student achievement.

Read it!

There’s much more to this study and you should read it if you’re interested in Wisconsin’s schools. Even if you generally avoid WILL’s work, give this report a try, as it outlines uncomfortable realities we need to wrangle with if our community is serious about improving education for all students.









Latinos need leadership in education reform

Where’s the Latino leadership when it comes to education reform? Latinos themselves support education reform at higher levels than other groups, but their elected officials—whether Latino or not—often reject school choice. The leading Latino civil rights organizations follow suit.

Last month, both the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) joined other organizations in expressing a “deep concern” about the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. The groups decry DeVos’s support of “voucher schemes which siphon away all-too-limited education funds” and suggest her positions on women’s healthcare (read: ‘abortion’) and affirmative action are reasons to scuttle her appointment.

I’m not suggesting that all Latinos agree on every issue. Since the DeVos nomination, a lot of ink has been spilled about whether she will make a good Secretary of Education—for Latinos or anyone else. Many reasonable people have reservationsSo be it. As Michael Petrilli pointed out, the education reform world is composed of many voices, and that should be celebrated.

But when Latino organizations stridently contradict what many surveys tell us are the desires of Latino voters, they must be called to account. LULAC’s education policy platform heaps scorn on vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and education savings accounts. It says, “LULAC strongly opposes vouchers and any other funding method that will limit public education resources.” Which “Latin American Citizens” is LULAC speaking for here?

It could be that LULAC’s membership doesn’t include the 71 percent of Latinos who told EdChoice, in a 2015 survey, that they support vouchers. Or the 73 percent that said they support education savings accounts. More likely, what we are seeing here is a chasm between striving Latino parents who want school choice and groups like LULAC who make a cottage industry out of their supposed interests.

The lack of solid Latino leadership in education reflects the dearth of Latino leadership in general. According to a 2013 Pew Research survey, 62 percent of Latinos cannot name a national leader or believe that none exists.

This response alone calls into question the legitimacy of national organizations that claim to speak on behalf of Latinos. What’s more embarrassing: An earlier Pew Survey asked whether participants could recognize the names of eight “prominent” Latinos. Janet Murguia, CEO of NCLR, came in last with only 8 percent of respondents identifying her. Whoever leads LULAC didn’t even make the list.

There is a flicker of hope. In the Pew survey, Senator Marco Rubio was named by 5 percent of respondents. Rubio might be the most prominent Latino supporter of education reform.

Latino leaders also exist at the state level, and they may soon emerge on the national scene as advocates for reform. In my home state of Wisconsin, I think of State Representative Jessie Rodriguez. I’ve met inspiring regional leaders like New Mexico State Representative Monica Youngblood and New York Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, who are on the front lines in their communities supporting school choice. The education reform movement needs to lift up leaders like these.

We must also support the development of new Latino leaders. The parents of Latino children are obvious candidates for these roles. No one can provide a more compelling case for school choice than parents, and as one in four U.S. students is Latino, there are a lot of parents out there able to step forward if given the chance.

Look at my friend Esther. Esther lives in Kenosha, Wisconsin. She and her family moved here from Mexico for a job. Unimpressed with public schools, she approached a private religious school intending to beg the school’s staff to help her find a way to pay tuition so her son could enroll. To her delight, she learned her family qualified for Wisconsin’s parental choice program, which Esther didn’t know existed.

Now, Esther spreads the word about school choice in her community. She has hosted meetings at her home and served as a hub of information about options for people who may not know about them otherwise. By letting free and informed choice rip, she’s letting freedom ring. Vouchers in Wisconsin and choice programs in other states make parents the masters of their own destiny and agents in their own kids’ development. Parents know that’s good.

We need to help parents like Esther get the resources they need. Give them access to the right programs, and you change the trajectory of their children’s lives. Esther isn’t the one writing Op-Eds or lobbying in statehouses. She doesn’t have a sleek corner office. But she knows the heart of the Latino community better than anyone because she is the community. And Latinos like Esther are the backbone of education reform because their kids will soon fill the majority of classroom seats.

Working together, reformers and Latino parents have an opportunity to usher in an era where school choice is the norm. By the time the children of the parents we know are old enough to run for office, we want them to be armed with knowledge and prepared to lead. By holding close to the community and its values, we can achieve that dream.

This article, by our executive director Jason Crye, originally appeared at Flypaper