This piece, by our Executive Director Jason Crye, originally appeared at Education Next.
Some education reform advocates who lean to the left are questioning the foundations of the educational system as well as the reform efforts that have been made—not always by people of their preferred political persuasion—since the 1990s. Some of these voices are so strident and their attacks so fundamental, calling for a total reform of society more than “mere” reform of schools, that I think it’s time to take a look at the basics.
If education reform is about children, we have to remind ourselves, too, of some basic facts about children themselves. Children are tender and impressionable. And children are children for a very short time.
So when I read about a “broader social justice campaign” aimed not just at schools but at a whole society, and of the need for “changes to health care, housing, immigration, and economic policies, as well as education” how do I react? I think of my five children, and look at my watch. My kids don’t have time to wait for Utopia before they buckle down and learn their ABCs. They need quality education this year. If we wait for the earth to shift on its foundations, it’ll be too late.
Part of this movement focuses on “minority” needs and insists that change be “minority-led.” But what does “minority” mean?
Black Lives Matter (BLM), for example, is an expression of the profound frustration of some in the black community. I hear what they’re saying, but I am not black, and neither are my children. Part of my heritage is Latino, and I work with the Hispanic community, which the BLM crowd is trying hard to woo and bring on board with their agenda. But in my experience, Latinos are ill-served by being treated as an accessory to a black-led movement. Perhaps this is why just one in three Hispanics expressed support for BLM in a Pew Research Center survey earlier this year, compared to two out of three African Americans. The history and needs of Hispanics are distinct. That difference is something I’d like activists like BLM and advocates for education reform to respect.
There are more Latino than black students in the U.S. today—in fact, there have been more Latino than black students since 2002, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And their numbers are growing fast. One in four U.S. students is Latino, which is projected to increase to 29 percent by 2025. African Americans make up just 16 percent of all U.S. students. That number is projected to decline to 15 percent by 2025, by which time the proportion of white students will have fallen to 46 percent. Who will be stuck with the quaint label ‘minority’ then?
I also have an issue with the profound disrespect shown by new left-leaning reform advocates to anyone not of their own race or political affiliation. True, free market-based school reforms associated with school choice and charter schools did not emerge from Marx. Leadership on education reform has often come from business leaders, some of whom are wealthy, and many of whom are white. Does that make their efforts less valuable? We should judge reforms by their results for students, rather than trying to label them according to the race or class of their proponents.
On the whole, education reform has a proven track record. It has enjoyed broad bipartisan support on the state and federal levels for years. One reason is that these reforms are targeted, structured, and modest. They use incentives and methods that work, and are focused on evidence that children are learning. They don’t try to fix health care and resolve racism and reform the police force simultaneously as a condition for helping schools. These are solutions provided by sober adults.
By contrast, some of the new “social justice” solutions smack of a dorm room bull session. The vision statement for the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) reveals a lack of focus and set of priorities so sprawling, it’s difficult to chart a path to progress. It calls for building “an international movement of people of African descent to force nations to ratify and recognize education as human right.” What exactly would that look like? Are black people in Accra and Ouagadougou really worried about schools in, say, Chicago? And is it OK if the rest of us Americans get involved in helping our kids, or are only those of African descent allowed?
The platform also calls on that mystical monolith known as “the federal government” as the solver of problems. For instance, it demands an increase (another increase) in federal spending on education, and a guarantee that “public education is protected by federal government.” The state is not a nanny whose job is to fix things with wads of money and ironclad decrees.
Before I am an education reformer, a Latino, or a member of any party—even before I am an American—I am a father to my children. And as a father who strives daily to raise responsible adults, I resent and will resist any campaigner who wants to draft my kids into some trite revolutionary game.