Editor’s Note: This post by Barbara Ferman introduces a book colloquy published by UAR discussing her book “The Fight For America’s Schools: Grassroots Organizing in Education,” including introductory and concluding essays by Ferman, with essays in between by Jeffrey Henig, Clarence Stone, Stefanie Chambers, and Sarah Anzia. Links to the essays are provided at the end of the post.
By Barbara Ferman (Temple University)
On October 19, 2017, Bill Gates announced that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would invest $1.7 billion in education with 60% going for curricula development and network building among schools, 15% for charter schools, and 25% for “big bets that have the potential to change the trajectory of public education over the next 10 to 15 years.” (quoted in L. Camera, 2017) Less than one month later, on November 16, 2017, the School Reform Commission (SRC), the body set up by the Pennsylvania legislature to govern the Philadelphia School District, voted to dissolve itself, returning school governance to Philadelphia This vote was the result of intense grassroots activism involving thousands of teachers, nurses, school aides, students, parents, and other activists.
These two events represent the yin and yang of education in the U.S. On the one hand, we have individuals and foundations with very deep pockets, and some with good intentions, but typically no background in education, public sector institutions, or democratic practices, shaping education policy and practice. On the other hand, are the constituents of public education–students, teachers, parents, nurses, school aides. While they possess a strong determination and commitment to public education and a knowledge of what works and what does not work in the classroom, they lack the deep pockets and access to decision makers. Moreover, they are constantly fighting battles in the larger war over who controls education policy. Given the severe resource imbalance between these two forces, the question becomes, how do the Davids of grassroots activism compete with the Goliaths of market-based reform in education? This is the question that animates The Fight For America’s Schools: Grassroots Organizing in Education. (Ferman, 2017) The question is significant because of its implications for democratic decision-making and the future of public education in the U.S; who will make education policy, in whose interests, and towards what ends.
The Fight for America’s Schools offers a deep dive into how individuals and organizations have entered the fray of education politics, a politics that has become increasingly pluralistic and contentious in the 21st Century. The book examines how grassroots activists in Pennsylvania and New Jersey challenged various neoliberal reforms in education such as high stakes testing, school closures, state takeovers of local school districts, and charter school expansion. The case studies focus on who the activists were, how they became involved, the challenges they faced, and the prospects for coalition building across different constituent groups. The comparative analysis reveals the role of political, organizational, demographic, and historical factors in shaping how activism played out in each location and in its effectiveness.
The UAR colloquy brings together five education scholars to comment on the arguments presented in the book and offer their own perspectives on the battle for public education. Clarence Stone expands the conversation through an examination of market-based school reform efforts in Washington, DC and Memphis. Stefanie Chambers asks how scholars can push for meaningful democratic change and how we can make our research more accessible to non-academic audiences. Focusing on the centralization of education policy, the direct attacks on local school boards which often from external actors, and top down accountability, Jeffrey Henig offers a sobering view of how effective grassroots activists can be in challenging these reforms. Finally, Sarah Anzia questions the book’s assessment of how much the politics of education have changed and how widespread market-based reforms really are.
The cases in the book and the commentaries leave us with both hope and despair. Grassroots activists have successfully pushed back on some reforms but the odds are long and the battle is far from over. My hope is that this book stimulates serious thinking, discussion, and strategizing about how we can all fight to preserve America’s schools. This colloquy is a step in that direction.
 The legislation that established the School Reform Commission stated that only the SRC could dissolve itself. Three commissioners voted for it, one against it and one abstained.
Lauren Camera, “Gates Foundation to Shift Education Focus, Education Reporter, October 19, 2017.
Stephen Sawchuk, “Gates Foundation Places Big Bet on Teacher Agenda.” Education Week, November 5, 2013. https://http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/11/06/11gates_ep.h33.html
Barbara Ferman, ed. The Fight For America’s Schools: Grassroots Organizing in Education (Cambridge,MA: Harvard Education Press, 2017)
Read the entire colloquy through these links:
Preserving Education as a Public Good: Lessons from the Grassroots by Barbara Ferman
Rhetoric, Reality, and Politics: The Neoliberal Cul-de-Sac in Education by Clarence Stone
Fighting for America’s Schools: Toward a More Democratic Approach by Stefanie Chambers
Where Now? Current Observations, Future Directions by Barbara Ferman
Barbara Ferman is Professor of Political Science at Temple University and Founder and Executive Director of the University Community Collaborative, a media based, social justice initiative for high school and college students. Her publications include: The Fight For America’s Schools: Grassroots Organizing in Education (2017: Harvard Education Press); Challenging the Growth Machine: Neighborhood Politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh (1996: University of Kansas Press); Governing the Ungovernable City: Political Skill, Leadership, and the Modern Mayor (1985: Temple University Press); The Political Hand: Policy Implementation and Youth Employment Programs (1985: Pergamon Press); and articles and book chapters on housing, racial integration, pedagogy, and civic engagement.