School Closings, Race, and Movement Politics

(2nd report from Close the Gap: Education Equality Day)

When it comes to educating our kid, we have an invention problem and an execution problem.  We need to invent new tools and new schools for this new generation.  In many respects, they are already living in a different world but attend schools out of the 1950s.  We simultaneously need to address the huge quality gaps that exist in America.  There are thousands of schools that are so bad they should be closed and thousands of teachers that shouldn’t be in the classroom. 

The last reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (called No Child Left Behind) was an attempt to close these gaps, but the status quo protects bad schools and bad teachers.  Every school develops a constituency, even bad ones.  That makes closing and replacing them a political nightmare.   Part of what complicates it is white politicians closing schools full of black and brown kids. 

Secretary Duncan suggests that states and districts should move aggressively to improve or replace at least 5000 failing schools—the lowest performing 5%.  But there’s not an active constituency for this aggressive action.  That’s one of the reasons that Chancellor Joel Klein formed an alliance with Rev. Al Sharpton—to inform, to mobilize, to close the gap.  The Education Equality Project is an attempt to create a movement for good schools for all young people in America—to build support for the difficult dislocations and reshaping of alliances that come with school transformation or replacement. 

Movement making is mess work.  At the Closing the Gap rally, there were voucher supporters and those that see vouchers as the end of public education; there were charter school supporter and opponents, there were union members and union opponents.  Building local coalitions to support better schools is the art of speaking the truth, aligning interests, and mobilizing action.  Klein clearly understands the power of faith congregations to make or block change.  His alliance with Sharpton isn’t an easy one, but the point seems to be that we need a series of unlikely alliances across this country to do the work the must be done to close the gaps. 

With a $5 billion federal fund, we have a once in a lifetime to innovate and improve execution.  Both will take state and local leadership willing to challenge the status quo.  Most politicians only take risks when they feel support or pressure.  They’ll get some of both from Secretary Duncan, but they’ll need a lot more from local constituents—namely minority parents fed up with lousy schools—to take on powerful and well endowed unions.  We need the Education Equality Project, or something like it, in every state to help build support to close the gap. 

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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