Defend and Transform

The Fight Forward for Public Education

In the aftermath of the US presidential election, policy pundits and even some activists have suggested that diverse schools can help heal the nation from the hatred that Trump’s victory represents. A lack of diversity, they argue, breeds hatred; conversely, diversity is supposed to trump hate, and contact with so-called others can deflate prejudice. These expressions come at a time when the problem of public school segregation has captured renewed interest. Terms like diversity, segregation, and integration have often been used interchangeably in public debates without attention to specificity, posing the question: what do these terms mean and what is the significance of each?

We must push back and redouble our efforts to protect one of the last remaining universally accessible public goods in the United States. But in doing so, it is all the more necessary to ask: what is it we are working to protect–and what might we also work to transform?
The words we fight with matter. Jeanne Theoharis reminds us that Rosa Parks understood this well: “Tellingly, Parks uses the term desegregation rather than integration—as many of her civil rights peers would—to signify that it was not a matter of having a bus seat or a school desk next to a white person but dismantling the apparatus of inequality.” As Parks herself put it, “Desegregation proves itself by being put in action. Not changing attitudes, attitudes will change.” Not contact, not deconcentration as some have termed it, not forums on diversity, not changing attitudes—but desegregation put into action, Parks knew, was required to dismantle the apparatus of inequality. To address the current crisis in public education, and in the US more broadly, desegregation still needs to be put into action.

Given the recent appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, this task grows all the more urgent. While the Bush and Obama Administrations fortified the reach of the corporate sector in education, DeVos has made clear her intent to aggressively privatize public education. We must push back and redouble our efforts to protect one of the last remaining universally accessible public goods in the United States. But in doing so, it is all the more necessary to ask: what is it we are working to protect–and what might we also work to transform?

In many ways, the failure to address this question, to join anti-privatization struggles to desegregation efforts, to understand the ways that racial capitalism works to dispossess through differentiation—has unintentionally aided the work of corporate education reformers like DeVos and her allies.

To give just one example, for several years, I worked as a community organizer, and central to this work was building a social justice organization, the Center for Immigrant Families (CIF), and the contradictions I encountered in the course of our organizing came to inform and shape my own research. CIF was located in New York City’s Community School District 3 (CSD3), which is among the city’s most racially and economically diverse, yet segregated school districts. Over the past fifteen years, due in large part to the recentralization of the city’s schools along with federal policies of No Child Left Behind (NCLB 2002) and Race to the Top (RTTT 2009), CSD3 also became one of the districts in New York City where charter schools developed and expanded. While CIF’s own organizing focused on fighting segregation in traditional public schools, we joined coalitions pushing back against charter schools. Despite the best of intentions and efforts, the anti-charter fights that captured much of the first decade of the 2000s in NYC were limited. Significant to the limits of these struggles was the ability to speak to the incongruity of defending public schools that have historically failed poor and working class communities of color and have worked as a mechanism to criminalize and dispossess.

The absence of this reckoning about the history and function of public schools has ceded much ground to charter corporations, which have appropriated long-standing critiques forged by poor and working class communities of color to boost their business and expand their clientele. For example, in CSD3, Eva Moskowitz, the CEO of the notorious Success Academy charter network, has stated on more than one occasion that her schools achieve greater economic and racial diversity than do CSD3’s public elementary schools. Her claim is not entirely without validity.

Not addressing the fact that our segregated public schools (like many charter schools) have been indicative of the structures of uneven development, dispossession, and differentiation upon which racial capitalism thrives, provides Success Academy and entities like it, even more room to grow.

Today, despite the inroads to privatization that have been established, public schools still serve the majority of students (nationally, charters serve approximately 5.1% of all public school students; in New York City, charters serve approximately 10% of public school students grades K-5, 8% grades 6-8, and 4% grades 9-12). We still have much to fight for. Today, many poor and working class people of color have either had their own negative experience with charter schools or know someone who has. In the course of my own research and activism I learned that often, these experiences have involved the students being asked to leave because they were not producing the right test scores or following discretionary disciplinary guidelines. Charter schools harm students and workers in myriad ways, and there is not sufficient space to account for those harms here. Yet today, collective experience and knowledge about the harms that privatization brings, about the limits that the market ensures, has expanded and deepened. This shift opens up new possibilities.

Now is a time to be clear in vision and words. We cannot diversify or integrate an apparatus of inequality and expect much more than the changing same. We can however, work to dismantle the apparatus of inequality which necessarily requires a redistribution of resources through public infrastructures. The work to defend and transform public education is inextricably tied to fighting for and creating what does not yet exist, and to the larger and unfinished project of the long civil rights movement. Research that that foregrounds the messy spaces, the contradictions, situated knowledge, and dimensions of the longue durée of organized abandonment that ethnographic research can illuminate is key to this project.

Ujju Aggarwal is a cultural anthropologist and a Spencer Foundation/National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellow as well as a Visiting Research Scholar at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is completing her manuscript, The Color of Choice: Raced Rights and Inequality in Education

Alison Kanosky is the section editor for the Society for the Anthropology of North America (SANA) column. Email her at [email protected] if you would like to contribute.

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