Choosing A Battle in the Fight for Educational Justice

Once again, I have been thinking about the false binary that is the education reform vs. anti-reform narrative. Allegedly, there are two sides and only two sides. On one, there are corporate-style dark-money-funded enemies of public education. On the other, there are virtuous, pristine defenders of public education. Ironically but maybe not surprisingly, both sides see themselves as champions of equality and justice for all. But because there are only two sides, there can only be one winner, and so in order for one side to win, the other must lose.

The problem is that injustice comes in many forms and that justice is not a winner-take-all proposition. The achievement gap is disgraceful. And so is segregation. And so is the erosion of community voice. And so is the paucity of teachers of color. And so is the insensitivity and thinly veiled racism shown by teachers to their students. To think that there is a single solution to all of these (and many other) problems is pure fantasy. 

When it comes to educational injustice, we need to prioritize. We need to consider – when two or more worthy causes compete for our attention and energy – which ought to come first. If I had to choose, I’ll go ahead choose structural poverty and institutionalized racism. Because if we cannot see each other’s struggle and humanity as shared (and our own capacity for inhumanity as disgraceful), then we cannot even begin to learn together.

This school year just ending has been a banner year for both racism and the fight against racism, mostly a result of numerous high visibility incidents of police aggression toward African-American men and women. The violence and indignity at the hands of police are not new, but the attention these incidents have received and the movement they have spawned is perhaps a watershed moment. In August of last year, the death of Michael Brown prompted an outpouring of grief and soul-searching and righteous indignation, leading to the popularization of #BlackLivesMatter. One of the leaders of the nascent movement in Ferguson was Brittney Packnett, the executive director of Teach for America (TFA) in St. Louis. And one of the most visible organizers in Ferguson and a partner of Packnett’s, Deray Mckesson, has also been an omnipresent and compassionate voice in parallel movements that sprang up in response to police actions in New York, Cleveland, Milwaukee, North Charleston, SC, Baltimore, and most recently McKinney, TX. Both Packnett and Mckesson – among many other social media activists – have been courageous and outspoken advocates for justice, leading the New York Times to dub the #BlackLivesMatter banner the “first 21st-century civil rights movement.”

And so it was unsettling to see both Packnett and Mckesson called out by conservative provocateur Michelle Malkin in a New York Post column this week. Malkin’s column was ostensibly an anti-TFA screed, and both Packnett and Mckesson are TFA alumni. Decrying TFA as a “recuiting center for militants” and highlighting Packnett and Mckesson as two of TFA’s “most infamous public faces,” Malkin demanded that taxpayer money stop being used to fund TFA. Such a position made Malkin an unlikely ally to many TFA critics, notably among them Julian Vasquez Heilig, professor at Sacramento State and a prolific blogger about issues of educational justice and equity.  Dr. Heilig is a thoughtful and thorough researcher and writer, and I share some his critiques of TFA.

And yet, when faced with his new ally, Dr. Heilig chose to highlight his crusade against TFA rather than distance himself from Malkin’s race-baiting. 

While Malkin welcomed this tweet, it also caused no shortage of head-scratching and consternation, including from Packnett, who asked, “is that all you have to say abt her using ur words to attack PoC and Ferguson? Genuinely curious.” Heilig’s response was that he read two arguments in the Malkin piece – the first an “anti activist” argument and the second about government subsidies for TFA – and he noted that he supported the subsidy argument (implying that he did not agree with the anti-activist argument).

But accepting Malkin’s argument against subsidies for TFA is not possible without also accepting her wholesale dismissal of the legitimate and peaceful #BlackLivesMatter movement. Forced to choose between parsing Malkin’s words and refuting them, people who care about children growing up in a race conscious and compassionate world – which I unequivocally believe include Dr. Heilig and other TFA critics – must stand with those activists (or “agitators,” to use Malkin’s word) who are fighting to elevate the lived experiences of students and families and communities confronting systemic racism and poverty.

That is not to say that I agree with many of the so-called “reform” prescriptions for improving education. I don’t, and I am willing to have frank conversations about why I believe what I believe. For instance, my vision of educational justice does not include more charter schools or the tethering of teachers’ due process rights to test scores. I do not know Brittney Packnett or Deray Mckesson’s views on education policy questions like these, but ultimately it does not matter. I have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with them (and people like them), because their outspokenness and sorely needed activism on behalf of historically marginalized people represent real risks and gradual but unmistakable progress.