The Equity/Economic Development Tradeoff in Cross-sector Collaborations

By Melissa Arnold Lyon and Jeffrey R. Henig

On a chilly October morning in Buffalo, New York, the Executive Director of Say Yes Buffalo sits at a table in a high school library with a group of about 20 community leaders. The group includes two local foundation leaders, the president of the local teachers union, a top school official, the vice president of a parent advocacy group, a few local higher education representatives, and a representative from the County Department of Social Services, among others. They gather for these meetings once every three weeks. On the agenda today is a discussion about inviting a representative from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to join this group, known as the Operating Committee of Say Yes Buffalo, as well as an update on programmatic data for initiatives such as school-based legal clinics, mental health clinics, mobile health units, and summer camps. During these updates, implementation challenges are discussed and the participants volunteer or call upon each other to figure out solutions. Not every issue is resolved, but the Operating Committee works together, argues a little, and eventually determines what it can accomplish.

Collaborative, cross-sector initiatives, such as this one, have proliferated in recent years. They focus on the district, city, county or metropolitan level and are attempting to bridge the gulfs between formal government and the civic sector, between the K-12 system and both early childhood and postsecondary programs, between school-focused strategies and those drawing on a wider range of services and programs that also affect educational achievement and attainment. These education-focused collaborations are a subset of a larger “collective impact” movement that claims to leverage new strategies for collaboration as a way to achieve large-scale change in areas as diverse as transportation, crime, and economic development.

After three decades in which attention and action around school reform seemed to drift inexorably toward states and the national government, it seems locally based efforts may be reemerging from the shadows. With the rise of complicated and interwoven local, place-based issues, city governments, civic leaders, and other organizations have increasingly responded with multi-issue coalitions and strategies to improve urban life (Clarke 2017). The development of these coalitions may lead to an increase in civic participation, particularly of historically underrepresented groups, and may be indicative of what Stone and Stoker (2015) refer to as a “new era” of urban and neighborhood politics less focused on economic development and more open to the intersectionality of social and economic development.

In this article we empirically examine the equity/development trade-off with a focus on the renewed interest and experimentation in locally based cross-sector collaborations for educational improvement. Taking advantage of a unique and original database on 182 education-focused collaborations around the country, we go beyond the case study methodology typically used for studying this type of initiative. To understand the extent to which these collaborations are presenting their work in terms of equity, we searched the information presented on collaborations’ websites and linked reports for terms that suggested a particular focus on supporting historically marginalized groups. Search terms included “equity,” “social justice,” “racial justice,” “achievement gap,” “opportunity gap,” and variants of these. We read the surrounding text for every instance of these words to ensure that the collaboration was describing equity as a central and explicit portion of their goals, mission, or work. For example, one collaboration in Michigan explained that they had a specific “Equity Workgroup” with a goal of  “Develop[ing] an overall framework for how the initiative can create strategies and implement programs that address the needs of all groups, but that pay particular attention to marginal groups.” We employed a similar process for economic development language, searching for terms such as “economic development,” “economic growth,” “economic revitalization,” “job growth,” “21st century skills,” and “housing prices.” A list of all search terms is included in the full paper.

We find that a substantial proportion of initiatives use equity language on their websites to describe their mission or day-to-day work. Indeed, almost half of locally based collaborations use equity-oriented language, whereas roughly one in three use economic development language. Roughly one in five (37 collaborations) use both types of language. This supports the argument that locally based initiatives can pursue equity. In at least some cases, there is a blurry line between economic development and equity that allows collaborations to present themselves as both redistributive and growth-oriented. Thus, in practice it appears there is not a need to choose one versus the other, and there may indeed be tactical arguments against doing so.

Labeling these education initiatives as growth-oriented is somewhat more typical of collaborations that started in prior decades. This may indicate allegiance to the ideas that were important when they were founded; older collaborations may be reflecting the values of prior eras in which contextual circumstances required cities to more narrowly focus on economic growth, while the newer collaborations reflect the postindustrial acceptance of a broader array of urban policy goals. Alternatively, it may be that as collaborations get older they recognize the demand to adopt economic development language in an attempt to placate the local business community, expand funding opportunities, or maintain mayoral support.

Additionally, an orientation toward equity is much more common in collaborations with higher percentage of their top governing board representing unions or community organizations, even while accounting for the effects of the website quality, age, national network affiliation, target population, and city demographic and fiscal characteristics (see Figure 1). To the degree that representatives of unions and community groups are more oriented toward equity, this suggests that these local interest groups have the capacity to influence the mission and work of locally based collaborations when they are given adequate representation.



Figure 1. The Conditional Association Between Governing Board Composition and Equity Language with 95% Confidence Intervals

We also find relationships between equity language use and both network affiliation and city demographics. As expected, collaborations affiliated with national networks consistently have a greater probability of using equity language compared to unaffiliated collaborations. The difference in the relationships is largest at lower levels of union and community group representation. This suggests that network affiliation—and the pressures and support for an equity agenda that may come with it—might be compensating for a lack of strong internal representation of organized voices for equity. Regarding city demographics, if local needs were the explanation for equity language, we would expect to find initiatives doing equity work more often in cities with greater economic stress, declining intergovernmental support, and higher levels of historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups. However, we find no relationship between fiscal indicators and the use of equity language, and we find that cities with proportionally more Black and Hispanic residents are less likely to describe their work in terms of equity. This suggests that political conditions of the locality, rather than necessity, may be the driving forces for choosing equity language.

The findings of this study contribute new knowledge about how locally based collaborative initiatives orient themselves in terms of equity and economic development. It matters that we are looking at how groups present themselves publicly and that this may or may not reflect genuine priorities, private language, or invested effort. If there is an objective tension between redistributive and developmental goals, the adoption of equity-oriented language might be a symbolic effort to appease less advantaged groups. However, instead, these findings could reflect the viability of a “both-and” local response presuming that there are mobilized regimes in places to balance and negotiate the tensions.


Clarke, Susan E. 2017. “Local Place-Based Collaborative Governance: Comparing State-Centric and Society-Centered Models.”  Urban Affairs Review 53 (3):578-602. doi: 10.1177/1078087416637126.

Stone, Clarence N., and Robert Phillip Stoker. 2015. Urban Neighborhoods in a New Era: Revitalization Politics in the Postindustrial City.

Read the article here.

Photo by Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash

Author Biographies

 Melissa Arnold Lyon is a PhD student in the Politics and Education Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research interests include urban education politics as well as the race, class, and interest group dynamics of social and educational policy. Prior to attending Teachers College, Melissa was a middle school teacher in Houston, Texas.

Jeffrey R. Henig is professor of political science and education at Teachers College and professor of political science at Columbia University. He has written or edited 11 books, including The Color of School Reform: Race, Politics and the Challenge of Urban Education and Building Civic Capacity: The Politics of Reforming Urban Schools both of which were named—in 1999 and 2001, respectively—the best book written on urban politics by the Urban Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.



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