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Pondiscio Raises Important and Fair Questions

I’m on a bit of an island this week. While many reformers pile on to Robert Pondiscio for his piece (some have even called it an attack) about conservatives becoming less welcome in the education reform space, I actually think he raises questions that we would all be wise to consider:

  • Do issues of race and gender equity belong in these conversations about education reform?
  • Will conservative ed reformers be alienated by them?
  • And, most importantly, can we disagree on these issues without being labeled racist or sexist?

Common Ground

Let’s start by acknowledging that supporters of education reform share the belief that our schools need to drastically improve. We also share the belief that all kids can learn even if we differ on whether “college for all” is a realistic goal. Many, but perhaps not all of us, also think it’s impossible to discuss equity in education without talking about race and poverty.

But our views diverge too. Nicholas Kristof recently wrote a piece about the void of diversity of thought and the “intolerance of liberalism”, particularly when it comes to college and university faculty. He began his piece this way:

“WE progressives believe in diversity, and we want women, blacks, Latinos, gays and Muslims at the table — er, so long as they aren’t conservatives.”

Similarly, Pondiscio is reflecting on what he sees as the increasing rejection of diversity of thought within education reform circles.  He specifically made reference to two of my colleagues in his piece, linking to a piece written by Marilyn Rhames about the New Schools Venture Fund summit and a Tweet by Chris Stewart.

Neither Chris Stewart nor Marilyn Rhames are lefties. Nor are they ideologues. Yet each found themselves mentioned in a piece about left and right, liberal and conservative. Both also happen to be black.

Chris Stewart is my colleague and friend. He is someone I turn to often because I respect his opinion, his honesty, and his willingness to push really hard when people have lost sight of his essential and unwavering question: “How are the children?”

Marilyn Rhames is a mom and teacher who I haven’t met personally (yet) but whose voice has been a gift to me as I work to appreciate and elevate the voices of black moms and the voices of teachers straddling the district and charter worlds. It’s not an easy place to be, especially in her hometown of Chicago.

But Pondiscio’s point is worthy of reflection and consideration and I worry that the noisy and knee-jerk  stereotypes (especially about conservative white men) are drowning out what he is really saying. Let’s remember, it was a conservative Republican who first spoke of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Before you throw tomatoes, hear me out.

I’ve said many times that I believe you can be a conservative woman and still be a feminist. That claim has been rejected by many, including some in the ed reform world.

When I agreed over Twitter that Hillary Clinton was yelling during one of her speeches, I was informed that I need to understand and come to grips with my own “internalized misogyny.” Some ed reform minded (and self described feminists) agreed.  I instead turned down the volume on the TV. I do the same with Trump and Bernie too when they yell. (If only my husband could be so lucky!)

When Justice Scalia died unexpectedly, many in the ed reform community said and wrote appallingly disrespectful things about the man. While many of his former law clerks stood vigil as his casket passed by, Twitter (and my own email) were ablaze with comments that were insulting not only to the man lying in the coffin and his family (and his BFF Ruth Bader Ginsberg) but also to anyone who liked or had ever agreed with the guy.  Ironically, Scalia’s death resulted in a ruling that protects teacher unions, much to the chagrin of many education reformers. Were he alive, Scalia would have tipped the balance the other way.

One other point is that, while many folks in the ed reform movement rarely if ever rub elbows with poor black and brown children and their families, Pondiscio took a 75% pay cut fifteen years ago to teach in the South Bronx and still does so part-time. In my view, the guy has standing and for me, his piece was about what he sees an increasing intolerance of opposing views in general.

While some see ed reform as a movement that is inherently connected to all social justice fights, others don’t believe the overlap or bundling is always necessary. Maybe they think the missions complement one another but still shouldn’t be seen as one and the same.

What do I know for sure?

Race cannot be ignored when we talk about education in America. And racism is different from other ‘-isms.’ My students, colleagues and friends have opened my eyes to the unique history, the unique pain, and the unique frustration of racism that could never touch me the way it has touched them. They don’t yet feel free in a nation that is supposed to be free.

The bottom line is that the last thing we should do is suppress the opinions of those we disagree with. Charter leader Greg Richmond said it well in just five sentences:

I agreed with much of what Robert Pondiscio had to say…as well as Marilyn Rhames, Stacey Childress, Kim Smith, Jay Greene, and Justin Cohen et al. Their sentiments are in tension but not in conflict. We should each refrain from believing that our own sentiments are correct and others must be corrected. More children will have a better life, faster, if we welcome each other’s diversity of perspectives.

What do you think?

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