So long as reformers in Maryland and other states fail to galvanize and work with poor and minority communities, the movement will struggle to keep the gains made on behalf of our children. Don’t believe it? Consider the experiences your editor has had over the past few years on this front.
Two years ago, your editor ended up meeting with state legislators in Dropout Nation‘s home state of Maryland as part of an unsuccessful effort to convince them to oppose a charter school law that essentially weakened efforts to provide poor and minority children with high-quality schools. Your editor uses the word “ended up” because I wasn’t invited by any of the Old Line State’s reform players.
Originally, I was coming to Annapolis to grab lunch with former Black Alliance for Educational Options President Kenneth Campbell, who was brought to town from his home in Louisiana by Center for Education Reform to lobby those very legislators. But because of the scheduling conflicts and other usual delays that happen when you are meeting with legislators, your editor ended up at the statehouse with Campbell and Kara Kerwin, CER’s president at the time.
Certainly the meetings were interesting for what they were. But what struck me that day was the shallowness of the bench for the reform side — especially considering that the National Education Association’s Old Line State affiliate can call up several hundred teachers to press the flesh with legislators at a moment’s notice. If your editor was contacted to help, I could have called at least 10 other people (all Black) who could have reached out to other state legislators. Those folks, in turn, could have brought their children and others along to explain why passing the bill would harm poor and minority children, especially those in the state’s public charter schools.
But it didn’t have to be just me. Within Prince George’s County alone, there are more than a few influential players who could have helped out. Here are three of the top of my head: Byron Garrett, the former chief executive officer of National PTA and onetime charter school leader. Deborah Veney, the communications czar of NewSchools Venture Fund who still has a home in the area. Even George Parker, the former head of the American Federation of Teachers’ District of Columbia affiliate, who has become a stalwart proponent of advancing school choice. All three, along with others, could have helped out if White reformers bothered to pick up the phone.
This experience came to mind today as I read former Thomas B. Fordham Institute President-turned-Maryland State Board of Education Vice President Chester (Checker) Finn’s lament about House Bill 978 and Senate Bill 871, two bills that would effectively condemn the futures of poor and minority children in the state by restricting the state department of education from holding failure mills and warehouses of mediocrity from any form of accountability. This includes banning state education officials from using an A-to-F grading system for measuring school and district performance as well as take over failure mills. Essentially, legislators want the state to abandon its constitutional (and federally-required) responsibility to oversee its public education system.
Even though Finn, along with his former colleagues at Fordham were responsible for pushing the Every Students Succeed Act that all but eliminated the federal government’s role in leading systemic reform (and keeping states such as Maryland from rolling back accountability), I won’t say I told you so — this time. In fact, I sympathize with Finn and agree that Old Line State legislators are harming the futures of children. Yet the success of traditionalists in getting both bills passed is another example of how reformers in Maryland (as well as those in other states) have done a shoddy job of reaching out to the Black and Latino communities best-positioned to blunt opposition to systemic reform.
Not once did Finn or his former Fordham colleague, Andy Smarick (who is president of the state board) bother to call Black and Latino reformers I know to assist them in opposing these efforts. Nor did I get an e-mail at any point asking for just a little help. Chances are that neither Finn and Smarick, nor their allies, approached any of the regional branches of Black fraternities and sororities such as Delta Sigma Theta to which many of Maryland’s Black politicians belong and must pay heed), or to Black churches such as First Baptist Church of Glenarden, First Baptist Church of Highland Park, and Jamal Bryant’s Empowerment Temple A.M.E. What about Black Lives Matter activist Deray McKesson (who works in Baltimore and ran for mayor last year)? Or even broadcaster Roland Martin, who is based across the way in Virginia and has a reach into Black communities that rivals nearly every reformer? Nope. Not them, either.
Again, given that Black and Latino players were never asked for help, it is no shock that Finn, Smarick and their allies now find themselves facing bitter defeat. It isn’t just on accountability. Driven by traditionalists as well as by their goal of keeping popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan from gaining any future legislative victories, the Democratic-controlled legislature is working to stifle the new voucher program Hogan successfully brought to life last year and have killed an effort to expand the number of charter schools serving the state.
Certainly this is not a new issue. Dropout Nation has spent the past few years advising reformers to build stronger ties to poor and minority communities. But the admonitions issued from these pages now loom ever larger as reformers in Maryland and elsewhere find themselves in a political environment in which neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to do more than necessary to help all children succeed. More importantly, thanks to abolishing of the No Child Left Behind Act and its powerful Adequate Yearly Progress provisions, as well as the move this month by Congressional Republicans to eviscerate ESSA’s administrative rules, reformers need stronger ground games at the state level in order to oppose NEA and AFT affiliate as well as traditional districts who have the bodies and relationships to roll back past reforms.
Traditionalists would have a harder time if reformers can rally the millions of Black and Latino families, along with immigrant households, single-parent households, and families led by grandparents who are concerned about building brighter futures for their children. But the movement has long failed to embrace the advice of reformers such as Green Dot founder Steve Barr and Connecticut Parents Union President Gwen Samuel on building stronger ties: Listen to the concerns of those communities; work with them on the issues outside of education that concern; include them at the decision-making and planning table; don’t simply ask for support when it is time to roll out the yellow t-shirts for protest marches.
The fact that many of the leading reform groups have no Black or Latino reformers in leadership also makes efforts by the movement to win support especially suspect. After all, for these communities, White people are the outsiders who always come bearing proverbial gifts that must be viewed with absolute suspicion. The movement cannot expect to win over the people they proclaim to be serving if people who look like them aren’t there in the first place.
What is happening in Maryland is terrible for our children. But reformers have had three decades to build up the political resources needed to oppose rollbacks of systemic reform. The most-important resource of all is people, especially those Black and Brown who represent the very children we are working to help.