Beware of Education Reformers who Co-Opt the Language of the Civil Rights Movement

By Denisha Jones Originally published by emPower Magazine on 2/27/14

The legacy of the Civil Rights Movement is so great, that it come as no surprise that many groups would try and use the movement to bolster their own cause. Utilizing the lessons learned from the Civil Rights Movement to continue to fight against all forms of oppression is imperative as we continue to eradicate injustices.

But lately we have seen the language of the Civil Rights movement co-opted by groups that push an agenda that contradicts the values of the fight for civil rights. From Glenn Beck’s attempt to “reclaim the civil-rights movement” from progressives who supposedly co-opted the movement to fit their own agenda to an elected official comparing Republicans who were fighting to have the Affordable Care Act repealed to civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks and Dr. King, we see how the language and the history of the civil rights movement can be distorted. Some conservatives would have us believe that Dr. King’s message was not about social justice and equality but instead was push for more conservative values. King’s famous line “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” has led some to claim that King was promoting a color-blind society that ignores race and that he would not have supported Affirmative Action policies. No one knows for sure how leaders from our past would respond to our current situation in America, but it is troubling nonetheless to see the legacy of great leaders co-opted to push certain agendas.

The education reform movement has also co-opted the language of the Civil Rights movement to push through privatization schemes that claim to close the achievement gap and increase educational opportunities for children of color. From the implementation of No Child Left Behind, which was touted as a way to increase achievement for students of color, education reform has declared to be about improving the educational experiences of children of color. Using this language makes it nearly impossible for anyone to critique the reform movement without being accused of not wanting to help children who have been left behind. When educators beg policy makers to understand the effects of poverty they are told poverty is not destiny and that a great teacher is all a child really needs to succeed. These messages attempt to cover up the real harm that privatization is doing to all children, but especially children of color and low-income children. Below are three examples of how the corporate education reform movement undermines the struggle for educational equality for all.

1. Privatization is inherently unequal.

The corporate reform movement that is waging war against public education has one goal in mind: privatization. Free-market advocates do not believe in a system of public education and are on a mission to see every aspect of a public society privatized from our prisons to our schools. But with privatization comes the loss of public ownership. Public systems are open to inspection by the public. Records are made public and the process is transparent so that community members can understand what is happening and voice their concerns. Privatization removes the ability of the public to know what is happening with their tax dollars. Private companies can use proprietary laws to prevent them from disclosing documents and following laws pertaining to public records. A Florida reporter experienced firsthand how privatization makes it impossible to do investigative reporting about private prisons,

“As soon as I started doing my research, I hit a big barrier because none of the private prisons would let me see the facilities for myself. It’s outrageous that a private corporation can determine whether a taxpayer can access a state prison, that these companies have the final say over who can enter them.”

Without the transparency of how our tax dollars are spent how do we hold private corporations accountable? Some businesses do well but others fail to garner enough capital to stay afloat; that is the nature of capitalism. But when the business model of winners and losers is applied to public education, the losers tend to be children who struggle academically and families without the social capital needed to advocate for their children. The winners are CEO’s and stock holders who earn high salaries with public money but can use their private status to shield themselves from public accountability.

2. School choice is not about parents choosing good schools it’s about schools choosing good students.

School choice has been pushed by corporate reformers since the creation of charter schools and vouchers. Using the plight of underfunded poverty ridden urban schools reformers argued that low-income and minority families should be given a choice in where they send their child to school. Choice and competition would force low-performing schools to compete for students or be closed. Why should low-income and minority families have to settle for a failing neighborhood schools when parents with more money could choose better schools? This is how the argument for school choice is often framed as a benefit for certain groups. But the research paints a different picture. Instead of charter schools increasing academic achievement for low-income and minority students, research from Stanford University found that most charter schools perform about the same as public schools. A study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that 34 percent of charter students did worse than their public school counterparts, 49 percent stayed the same, and only 17 percent did better. In many states, charter schools and virtual schools are found to be ineffective but yet the Department of Education and the Obama administration continue to push charters as the solution to our public school problems.

The push for privatization distorts the picture of who really gets to choose under school choice schemes. Reformers would have us believe that parents are doing the choosing but in reality it is the charter schools, many which are for-profit corporations, who get to choose. Research from the same study out of Stanford found charter schools to enroll less students of color, less students with special needs, and fewer English language learners than public schools. Some charter schools are able to push out low-performing students before they take tests as a way to bolster their test scores. Critics of charter schools have acknowledged how it is unfair to compare charter schools to public schools when they typically do not serve the same population of students. Charter schools are supposed to operate on a lottery system where students are randomly admitted to the school, but often children with special needs and children with behavior issues are discouraged from applying. And children who pose problems once admitted are kicked out and sent back to their public school, but the charter school keeps the money the state allocated for the child’s education. If public schools could pick the more desirable students and weed out those who were weak academically they would not be classified as a public school.

3. Underprepared teachers for other people’s children.

Privatization of public education cannot be fully implemented unless the system for educating teachers is also privatized. Typically teachers were prepared through colleges and universities were they took a variety of courses and completed a semester long student teaching internship before they could apply for a teaching license through their state. Today fast-track teacher preparation programs like Teach for America (TFA) are turning teacher preparation into a business. Recent college graduates are recruited to spend a few years teaching in inner-city schools with high needs students. Armed with five weeks of training and a desire to give back, these recruits are placed in classrooms and expected to outperform educators with teaching degrees and years of experience. TFA is touted as noble program that will change the teaching profession by removing the union thugs who only care about themselves and replacing them with young idealistic people who have the commitment to do what needs to be done and will not use poverty as an excuse.

Armed with language of from the Civil Rights movement, TFA claims to be champion of low-income and minority children. Statements like this, “Nearly 50 years after landmark civil rights marches throughout the region, deep, entrenched poverty still persists along racial lines” and “From Birmingham to Selma, corps members are helping to prove that all kids can achieve at high levels, even those living in poverty” can be found on their website and are clear examples of how TFA has co-opted the language of the Civil Rights movement. But hidden behind these nice quotes is the assumption that other people’s children deserve underprepared “saviors” as their teacher. TFA only works in high needs areas that tend to be urban or rural and comprised of low-income and minority families. Although research has found that children who struggle academically need high quality teachers often they are the ones that get uncertified and underprepared novices. And TFA exacerbates that reality by pumping their recruits into schools and communities were children need more than a temporary “savior”. If the model of TFA is what is needed to improve teaching and learning, why are TFA recruits not sent to suburban schools or wealthy public school districts? Could it be that those parents would never allow someone with five weeks of training to experiment on their child? What the richest and most educated parent wants for their own child should be what we aspire to give all children.

The Dream Continues

The push for educational equity was a major part of the Civil Rights movement. Although we have made much progress from the days of segregated schools we have yet to achieve a system of education that is equitable for all children. Low-income children and children of color continue to be failed by our public school system. There is much work to done as we continue to march towards Dr. King’s dream. Corporate education reform is not an ally in our fight for educational justice. We must not be fooled by those who seek to use the legacy of our struggle to turn a profit at the expense of our children’s education. A strong democratic republic needs high quality public schools that offer a free and appropriate public education to all.

Denisha Jones has a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from Indiana University. She has taught kindergarten, preschool, served as a campus based preschool director, and taught college for over 10 years. Currently she is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at Howard University. Her research interests include service-learning, dealing with challenging behaviors, the de-professionalization of teaching, and promoting diversity in education.


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