Identity politics threatens education reform movement

The drive for education reform brought together an unusual coalition — conservatives who believe in free markets and left-wing community activists who knew little about Milton Friedman but who saw that the public school monopoly was failing children from poor families. For more than 20 years, this coalition has effectively advanced the cause of school choice, often with very beneficial results.

But the coalition is fraying thanks, at least in part, to the rise of Black Lives Matter, including its ripple effects. This issue of Education Next provides a good sense of the fraying.

The Black Lives Matter movement opposes school choice. So does the NAACP. Both have called for a moratorium on public charter schools.

The black community organizers who have pushed for school choice remain committed to it, as far as I can tell. But many seem now to be insisting that the cause be subsumed in the movement for “social justice.” Thus, the title of an article by Howard Fuller, a hero in the quest for school choice decades ago in Milwaukee, is “School Reform Must Serve Social Justice Goals.”

Fuller argues:

Children who are hungry cannot learn; children who are abused and neglected will find it more difficult to concentrate in school. Our work must transcend the schoolhouse. We must fight for the laws, policies, and practices that address these issues as a critical factor in setting the conditions for our children to learn.

We must not back away from supporting the importance of mental health services for children, fighting for living wage jobs for the families of our students, speaking out against the wrongful deaths of black people by the hands of the police, and calling for more black empowerment within the education reform movement.

Criminal justice reform has also been cited as part of the package of reforms needed to advance the cause of educating black children.

Some conservatives in the school reform movement have pushed back. They want to keep the focus on the schoolhouse and the classroom. Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute expressed his displeasure in an article called “The Left’s drive to push conservatives out of education reform.” He wrote:

There is an unmistakable and increasingly aggressive orthodoxy in mainstream education reform thought regarding issues of race, class, and gender. And it does not include conservative ideas.

Last week, the American Enterprise Institute invited education reform leaders on both sides of the divide to Washington. Two dozen or so of them met behind closed doors, after which members of both sides of the divide publicly discussed their differences. Fuller and Pondiscio were among the panelists.

After watching the two panels and reading the Education Now pieces, I still had trouble figuring out why, as a matter of substance, there should be a schism. I doubt that there’s any dispute between black activists and conservatives that societal problems are a barrier to effective education (though there may be substantial disagreement, albeit rarely expressed, about the root of the problems and how to address them).

If black activists want to push for school choice, plus income redistribution, plus letting felons out of jail early, plus whatever else, that should be fine with conservatives. If conservatives want to limit their advocacy to school choice and other matters involving only the schoolhouse and the classroom, that should be fine with the activists. Logically, the confluence of both sets of advocacy should be a reasonably unified push for education reform.

It’s possible that the additional advocacy for left-wing causes may cause politicians in red states to take a less enthusiastic view of educational reform. However, legislators and executives should be able to resist throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Pondiscio is correct in warning that if the education reform movement adopts a “fix structural racism first” attitude, the conversation will no longer have much to do with fixing schools. But it didn’t seem to me that the left-wing panelists at AEI hold that attitude.

If I’m right that the differing views of conservatives and community activists shouldn’t, as a matter of logic, impede the push for school choice, then what is really going on? My impression (and it can only be that given that I’m an outsider) is that this is a power struggle.

As I noted above, Pondiscio spoke of “the left’s drive to push conservatives out of the school reform movement.” This may be what’s creating the schism. Or maybe this a case of “mau-mauing” — an attempt to intimidate conservatives into embracing, or softening opposition to, “social justice” agenda items, with the intimidation element coming in part from the threat of being driven out of the movement.

Moving a social justice agenda to the front burner may also be the price that some activists feel they must pay to retain their standing and credibility as they advocate school reform in the face of a Black Lives Matter movement that opposes it. But this thesis is pure speculation.

What seems to likely to me is that the schism in the education reform is another sad byproduct of deteriorating race relations, the rise of identity politics, and the ripple effects of Black Lives Matter.