Perhaps the biggest buzz in education-reform circles these days, and among the philanthropies that pay for such things, is community empowerment and community control. Instead of welcoming ideas, programs, strategies, and schools devised by distant experts, policy wonks, do-gooders, and state leaders—all of whom tend to be white and privileged—the traditional power relationships should be reversed, advocates say. Those who are supposed to benefit from reforms should now be in charge of deciding what needs to change and also be in charge of the institutions engaged in such change. Instead of “being helped” they should have ownership. Reforms should be “made with us, not to us” is often heard. Rather than thanking their benefactors, community members and leaders should decide what needs to be done, determine how it should be done, and direct the doing of it.
The “communities” referred to, in almost all these instances, consist of people of color—and sometimes members of other long-disempowered and discriminated-against populations, kept down over the decades by rich, powerful elites because said elites are greedy, entitled, condescending, and loath to give up any privilege or power.
It’s past time, we are told, to begin viewing education reform through the other end of the spyglass and to upend the power structures and leadership structures that have kept that from happening.
The impulse for all this is totally understandable and laudable—more on this below—and for a lot of people it’s not new at all. For as long as I’ve known and revered Howard Fuller, he has been making the same case for the same reasons. Outside the education realm, one can point a lot further back to Saul Alinsky, for example, Frederick Douglass, Dorothy Day—and Karl Marx, too, for that matter.
Its recent re-application to K–12 education reform in the American context, however, is coming from some less familiar places.
Consider the Walton Family Foundation’s new five-year strategy, which “prioritizes...championing community-driven change to ensure the foundation’s work reflects the voices and needs of communities in which it works,” as well as “diversity, equity and inclusion in the grants the foundation makes and the voices it engages.” Consider the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s K–12 program emphasis on “partnering” with schools and networks of schools rather than devising and promulgating programs of its own devising. Consider the foundation-supported City Fund’s “aim to invest in organizations led and informed by people of color and historically marginalized families.” Or the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s premise that “those impacted by policy issues are often best equipped to drive solutions and hold those in power accountable.”
Turning to the receiving end of ed-reform philanthropy, we find—among many examples—a determined move within the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to place “communities at the center” of future charter authorizing. NACSA CEO Karega Rausch wants his organization to “center this work in the hopes and aspirations and needs that local communities actually have for their kids.”
It’s worth focusing on charter schools in part because, as I’ve written many times over the years, they’ve almost always been community-centric if not necessarily creatures of their communities. I’m no fan of what’s happened to most locally-elected school boards, captives as they so often are of employee interests rather than reflecting the will of the larger community. And I have long described charters as a bona fide reinvention of “local control” in education as it was meant to be. Even now, more than two decades in, for all the hoopla about big charter networks, two-thirds of U.S. charter schools remain local institutions. Some are free-standing single-site schools—we used to call them “mom and pops”—while others are small, one-city networks including some great schools that Fordham is proud to authorize in Ohio.
They’re local, they’re very much in and of their communities, and like all schools of choice, they’re subject to the ultimate in local control: families that don’t like what they’re doing are free to walk out the door and down the street to enroll their children in a different school.
Yet for the most part, these and many other “local” charters don’t entirely match what today’s power-shifting reformers seem to have in mind. Though the schools themselves are attended mostly by the Black and Brown youngsters for whose benefit they were created, oftentimes their leaders, board members, rainmakers, funders, and/or a fair number of their teachers are mostly White and/or from out of town and/or individuals who grew up in middle class families, went to elite colleges, and do not themselves reside in the ‘hood.
As an authorizer, let me note, we at Fordham are aware that no community is monolithic—a reason we support school choice in general, as it allows families living on the same block to pursue differing education priorities, needs, and values. As an authorizer, we also have to ask whether “community control” of the schools in our portfolio would mean we could never pull the plug on a really weak one. Pretty much every school, regardless of its track record, is beloved by its students, families, and neighborhood. In the charter world, however, being liked isn’t supposed to be enough.
Crusaders like Fuller understand that and deal well with the complexity. But it’s complicated. And for the most part, at least until recently, the relatively privileged—and not-from-the-neighborhood—population of a many charter-school founders, leaders, teachers, and board-members has not been a problem for philanthropists, whose own demographics are not exactly community-centric, or for the larger ed-reform movement. It and its funders have sought to do what they saw as the right thing for needy kids, which meant respecting expertise and welcoming the energies of TFA types who would devote a couple of years to the inner city before going into finance or technology. It also meant cultivating elected officials regardless of race, party, or ideology, and certainly cultivating big-time philanthropy, even if the money came from people with names like Gates, Walton, Zuckerberg, Carnegie, and Broad.
Why the push to change that today? The immediate motives, goals, and concerns at work here are entirely understandable, worthy, even noble. The country has been forcefully, vividly, and painfully sensitized to the depredations of racism, paternalism, sexism, injustice, and inequity, even as it has also struggled under the burdens of an awful pandemic and a seemingly endless epidemic of sick politics. It’s time, a growing number of people appear to have concluded, for yesterday’s reformers to quit making decisions for those they set out to “help.”
Also coursing through our culture and politics these past few years, though mostly coming from a different direction and manifesting itself in ways most ed-reformers and philanthropists find appalling, is populism: the conviction among a lot of Americans that they, too, have been left out, manipulated, and disrespected by elites, and deprived of their fair share of just about everything. They, too, want to be in charge.
Please at least recognize the parallels!
More next week, if you can stand it.