A flurry of activity among education reformers across the country exposes a growing bifurcation within its ranks, uncovered by recent challenges to teacher tenure in New York. Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown's Partnership for Educational Justice, which recently recruited renowned attorneys David Boies and Laurence Tribe, seeks to reform teacher tenure laws, mirroring activities that led to California's controversial Vergara ruling. But earlier this month, the New York City Parents Union filed suit separately alleging that Brown's group failed to include scores of minority parents in their complaint. This troubling yet pervasive tableau has bedeviled modern reform movements since their inception: Leadership has remained predominantly white, even though the target populations are overwhelmingly black and Latino. And these battles are contributing to a growing disjunction in education policy and among stakeholders within communities and across cities.
To be clear, education reform exists along a continuum throughout America's history. From the Progressive Era in the late 1800s to early 1900s, to black activists who sought "community schools" to magnet schools and now charters, many district-wide and community-led efforts have long involved a delicate balance of teachers, administrators, activists and parents. Furthermore, most reformers are mindful of this rich history. But the attacks leveled by a select few on teachers and community leaders who were deemed antithetical to education "progress" were likely unsustainable, and the Obama administration's tacit support would make allies vulnerable to institutions with historic sway over local community and political leaders.
As a result, tactics shifted as these policy entrepreneurs who excelled at building national networks of influence were ineffective at converting access to influential elites into broad grass-roots electoral strategies, though their ability to mobilize parents within specific schools proved formidable.
In an effort to engage the grass roots in multiple policy venues, top Democratic leader and Democratic National Committee Vice Chair Donna Brazile, speaking at the American Federation of Teachers' (AFT) national conference in July, announced that she and former Govs. Jennifer Granholm (D-Mich.) and Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) would spearhead an effort to counter the efforts of school choice advocates. Democrats for Public Education — as opposed to the charter-backed Democrats for Education Reform — seeks to fight "market-driven" reforms that left Brazile "ashamed of some of the Democrats of her own party." Such a rebuke of President Obama's education policy may add another layer of friction among activists and parents on the ground and between policy leaders and entrenched education stakeholders that include organized labor, foundations and major donors.
None of these organizations or their strategies should be observed in a vacuum, but rather as part of a string of events provoked perhaps by Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty's (D) failed reelection bid in 2010. Many reports suggest that Fenty's difficulty with constituents stemmed from their truculent relationship with his chancellor of schools, Michelle Rhee, and a desire to return to more fundamental notions of public education. The recent mayoral victories of Bill de Blasio (D) in New York and Ras Baraka (D) in Newark, N.J., arguably punctuate a rejection of centrist policies and will become an overture to the high-profile mayor's race in Chicago, which might match Rahm Emanuel (D) against Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who is strongly considering challenging him in a primary.
The language and tactics of the civil rights movement will undoubtedly permeate debates over teacher tenure in New York and other reforms around the country. AFT President Randi Weingarten said at her conference earlier this year that "what's been enduring and unifying is a vision of America based on a foundation of democracy and economic opportunity." Earlier this year, in March, a rally that brought 4,000 charter school parents to the New York state capital of Albany was called a modern day "freedom ride." Undoubtedly, the parents most affected in this debate are urban, minority and often poor. They also have agency, but there is a growing sense that their support is being appropriated for purposes that go beyond the classroom and their children.
Smikle is a political analyst and adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and the City University of New York's School of Professional Studies.