How We Fight For Public Education Now.

02/09/2017 03:58 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2017
Photo by Asil Yassine

We cannot talk about education without talking about our values. So pull up a chair. Have a seat. Let’s talk.

So what is it, America? What are our values about public education?

This is different than expressing our sentiments on charter schools, vouchers, or distance learning. Those are nuances. Think more broadly. The problem with asking “What does a great school look like?” is that it is too specific. We have perfected the art of creating an excellent school in a test tube. It flourishes in a corner of the city, and we run out of the lab and into the editorial sections with vast claims about remarkable charters or ravishing academies. It’s a poignant exercise because of the mere simplicity of the question. It evokes resounding blanket statements about “what works” in education. That’s great, but it’s not enough to save public education. Think bigger.

Think communities.

We struggle to articulate our deepest values about public education because we do not want to talk about how — or if — we value communities.

The premise here is that public schools are inseparable from the community, and the community is inseparable from its public schools. This isn’t a mind-blowing statement, but how about this? Are we willing to value the capacity of every single community so that they can govern, support, and improve their schools?

In other words, do we believe in and value the power of every community?

Until we accept this as a value, I am afraid we will continue to see the overhaul of public education, particularly under the helm of Betsy DeVos.

Here’s the argument. Emphasizing communities is — first and foremost — a form of resistance to both our country’s history and its trajectory. We must come to grips with the fact that our government does not actually value communities. Historically, institutionalized racism has brutally and intentionally destroyed neighborhoods of color. Thanks to discriminatory housing policies, if you were black, you were explicitly denied a housing loan by the Federal Housing Administration. To this day, redlining practices have their ghosts back where I taught in Detroit and greatly shape the de facto segregation and lingering disinvestment of the very neighborhoods our students live in. And racism is not museum material yet. Consider how the state of Michigan created a water crisis in Flint and why the Dakota Access Pipeline is set to run through sovereign Native American land. We don’t need to wonder if our government values communities — we already have evidence that they do not.

So we can’t lean on Uncle Sam here. But what’s the point anyway? Why communities? I argue that this is where the power to retain and transform our public schools lie.

Critics point to the failures of public schools, glossing over the fact that the deepest challenges of public education stem from social and economic inequities. We hear calls to work harder, try this program, throw out this principal. Some reform efforts can whip out poster-ready results for a campus or a network of schools (and even that’s questionable) but are unable to sustainably battle major inequities because they often work in isolation of the neighborhood. That’s the tragedy of progressive paternalism. This massive work cannot be done within the school building alone. Even typical forms of engaging families isn’t going to cut it because the power is still lies within the school and the politics they are mercy to.

So let’s take Detroit, where I most recently taught, and imagine the level of frustration of families already politically disenfranchised, seeing their schools ripped away from their neighborhoods, and forced to navigate a chaotic educational landscape void of good options. At that point, it’s not just about the nuances — whether these schools are charter or public or state-run or private. It’s about what these actions says about your identity, your family, and your neighborhood. When your state announces that 25 schools in the city of Detroit are slated to shut down at the end of this year, expected to displace 11,000 students and their families, this sends a strong message. And the message is not actually about your schools, it’s about you. It says that you don’t matter, your kids don’t matter, your educators don’t matter, your neighborhood doesn’t matter. The response? Rise and shine. Fire up the community. This message must be met with opposition.

The idea of a community fighting for their neighborhood schools is not just sentimental and romantic. We know that when schools and communities deeply partner, the results are transformative. Dr. Mark Warren at UMass Boston delves into this in his research. When the community was first valued and then empowered, a political constituency emerges that partners with schools to break down the injustices that plague even the most committed educators. The Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago is considered a hallmark example of how a neighborhood constituency and schools can partner. In this example, parents became leaders and classroom assistants, identified housing crises and organized to resolve them, and even created teams to help newly arrived families enroll in state health insurance. Instruction, housing, and healthcare. These all have massive impacts on our students and in this case, it was the community that fostered transformations in both student learning and wellness.

In other words, the power is in the hands of the community. We cannot crush inequities if we maintain laser focus on just buzzword education issues and innovations. To save our public schools, we must empower our communities. But first, we must value them. We must deeply believe that there is power in there. To doubt this is to enable the further destruction of our public schools.

Public education is threatened because of a multitude of injustices. I am just as outraged as you are about the confirmation of Betsy DeVos. But I am also deeply concerned about our long history as a nation that devalues and disempowers communities — particularly communities of color. If we truly value communities, then we will recognize that they hold great promise because they hold great power. Communities can champion, support, and improve the very schools they believe every kid should be afforded to attend — the ones right in their neighborhood.

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