Stacey Childress, the head of New Schools Venture Fund, whose conference sparked the current row over the Left/Technocratic takeover of the ed reform movement, penned a reply to Robert Pondiscio. While Stacey deserves credit for the level-headed nature of her response, which stands in stark contrast to much of the reaction Robert has received elsewhere, she unfortunately misses the point of Robert’s piece. Robert is not questioning the desirability of diversity in the ed reform movement. To the contrary, he is expressing concern about the development of a new Left/Technocratic orthodoxy in the movement that would, among other things, harm the political prospects of maintaining support from state Republicans who have and will continue to be essential for passing and implementing reform policies.
Stacey denies the charge. She argues that it promotes rather than hinders diversity to have a panel discussing other important “social movements”:
The purpose of the session was to learn more about movements in general and hear directly from some people who are part of a couple of them…. Yes, the session included Black and Latino leaders working in ed reform (TFA alums and staff) who also are part of current social movements they view as intertwined with urban education issues.
Her reply reveals the problem. Let’s leave aside the fact that neither Robert nor I are concerned solely with that panel. Frankly, I found Arne Duncan to be the most insufferable speaker at the Summit. When asked to describe his three greatest failures as Secretary, he listed his failure to convince Republicans to spend more on pre-K, his inability to get Republicans to solve problems for undocumented college students, and the refusal of Republicans to adopt new gun control legislation following Sandy Hook. Notice that all of his greatest failures were his inability to get Republicans to do the right things. And notice that none of these are even K-12 issues. And as a prime example of groupthink, Duncan was being interviewed by his former deputy, Jim Shelton.
And let’s leave aside that neither Robert nor I are concerned solely with New Schools Venture Fund or its conference. We both argued that the ed reform movement as a whole has taken a dramatic turn. If Stacey doesn’t think her conference is an example of that, then she can surely find confirmation in the hyperbolic reaction to Robert on social media. More than 100 people, representing a broad swath of foundation-fueled ed reform organizations, have co-signed an “open letter” rebuking Robert and his essay. Just a brief review of the Twitter feeds of these co-signers should convince anyone of the accuracy of Robert’s concerns about groupthink, ideological litmus tests, and lack of intellectual diversity in the new ed reform movement.
The main problem with Stacey’s contention that learning “more about movements in general” is beneficial is that it fails to grasp how broad and diverse coalitions are actually maintained. The way you hold together a coalition of people who agree on some core issues while strongly disagreeing on other issues is by not raising or focusing on the issues on which people do not agree. It’s like politically diverse families trying to get along at the Thanksgiving dinner table. It’s best not to bring up or dwell on certain topics if your goal is to maintain family harmony.
Stacey may be right that some members of the broad coalition see a variety of “social justice” issues “as intertwined with urban education issues,” but other, conservative members of that coalition may have their own issues that they see as “intertwined.” For example, conservatives might want to talk about their concerns about Affirmative Action, abortion, and promoting intact families as issues they see as related to urban education. Panels on those topics at ed reform conferences would almost certainly hurt the building of a broad and diverse coalition, so those issues rarely come up and are almost never part of ed reform conference planning.
Most conservatives within the ed reform movement have the good sense not to plan panels around these tangential conservative movements. Evidence for the Left/Technoratic takeover can be found in the fact that Stacey and other ed reform leaders no longer feel any restraint in highlighting tangential “social justice” movements in their conferences, organizational activities, writings, Tweets, and other activities. They would be right to find efforts to highlight “conservative” tangential issues as a divisive distraction, but they are unable to see how the tangential issues they view as good might produce the same reaction in others.
Let me be clear, that by “tangential” I mean issues on which there is not broad consensus among those we wish to include in the ed reform coalition. I am not offering any opinion here on whether institutional racism, poverty, police brutality, affirmative action, abortion, and two-parent households are educationally important or not. My point here is not whether these are valid and related concerns or not, but that they are likely to divide and shrink the ed reform coalition if they are highlighted.
I am also not trying to silence anyone, hinder their free speech, or demand “safe spaces” in which people do not have to confront issues. People should feel free to talk about whatever they want and organize conferences in any way they think best. But people have to understand that if they choose to focus on certain issues, they will narrow their coalition. This would be as true if you wanted to emphasize alleged problems with affirmative action as alleged problems with police brutality.
You can decide to be the family member at the Thanksgiving table who lectures your uncle on the errors of his ways, but you will do so at the expense of family harmony. And he will be less likely to accept invitations to future family gatherings or offer help on family needs.
It’s possible that Stacey and the co-signers of the “open letter” have just had enough of their uncle and don’t care about alienating him. That’s fine. But as I’ve argued in much more snarky fashion elsewhere, the adoption and implementation of ed reform depends heavily on support from state Republicans. You can’t alienate them and those to whom they listen in the ed reform movement without seriously weakening the political prospects for ed reform. I am also puzzled by why the largest donors will continue paying for organizations, conferences, and staff who would rather lecture their uncle than maintain family harmony.