Why Shouldn’t Ed Reformers Like Arne Duncan Protest Police Violence?

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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Ferguson with American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten last week, after participating in protests in DC the preceding weekend. He was the first member of Obama’s cabinet to come since Eric Holder visited in August. “The division between young people and the police is huge,” he said. “The division along race in this community is huge. The division along educational opportunity being based on where you live, your zip code, is huge. The inequities are huge.”

That might be true, but it wasn’t universally welcomed. For some, his work on education reform objectives precludes him from joining the protestors’ coalition. A few even saw it as a betrayal that Weingarten agreed to accompany Duncan on the visit.

Save your sympathy, of course. Duncan has faced far worse criticism, and no public official ever acts without sparking anger from someone, somewhere. But there’s a simmering argument out there that’s reaching more vulnerable folks on the front lines. That is, some of the committed protesters in Ferguson have faced criticism because of their affiliation with the education reform movement. Folks like Brittany Packnett and DeRay Mckesson have been dismissed by fellow travelers simply because of their affiliation (and in Packnett’s case, employment) with Teach For America.

Rishawn Biddle, writing at Dropout Nation and elsewhere, has been relentless in demanding that education reformers join other education actors—like Weingarten—in speaking out about police brutality. Reform organizations like Teach For America, 50CAN, and others have been forceful, but they have also been exceptions to the broader rule.

So why are reformers like Duncan and Packnett taking heat for their support and leadership of the protest movement? Surely they are better than folks who would rather act as though police violence against African-Americans is somehow irrelevant to improving American education.

Duncan’s term hasn’t been smooth. He has presided over a period of increasing rancor and ideological entrenchment on education issues—both within the Democratic party and the broader American public. Duncan has been with Obama since 2008, and exemplifies some of the best and worst of the administration’s style. He is earnest about his work. Duncan cannot stop talking about “the kids” and how adult bickering never serves their interest. While many of his colleagues have become battle-hardened by their time in the Beltway, listening to Duncan hearkens back to the original Obama campaign motifs: hope and change. The guy’s just relentlessly determined—he seems immune to cynicism.

Duncan has always reminded me of my educator relatives from the Chicago suburbs, who share both his accent and way of talking about educational equity. Like those heroes of mine, Duncan speaks with passionate urgency about students’ prospects. And also like those heroes, he struggles with political sensitivity when he’s frustrated.

But if this disposition has occasionally been a liability when it comes to reforming the intractable, inequitable status quo in American education, it seems uniquely suited for the current debate over police brutality. Duncan’s earnestness is perfect for clarion calls. Those can be ungainly when it comes to complex questions about how to address opportunity and achievement gaps in public schools, but it’s precisely what’s needed in response to systemic police violence against African-Americans. We sometimes talk of educational equity as a civil rights issue—and I believe that it is—but the policing crises in Ferguson, New York City, and beyond fit that description even more clearly.

The reticence of some to accept education reformers into the Ferguson movement may be indicative of the dynamic I’ve noted in earlier writing—trust is at an all time low in education. Consider: for these critics, it’s easier to see TFA alums and Secretary Duncan as ‘Trojan Horses’ acting for corporate masters than it is to accept that these folks might be genuinely pained by the injustices in Ferguson and NYC.

Perhaps it’s early days, and perhaps this is too minor to care. But nothing kills a movement like intestinal divisions in pursuit of purity. After all, as Duncan would surely say, the protests in Ferguson, NYC, and beyond aren’t about pleasing everyone on every issue all the time—they’re about justice for Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. They’re about a fairer, safer future for African-American kids. Surely there’s room for education reformers in a coalition with that goal.

Conor P. Williams, PhD is a Senior Researcher in New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @conorpwilliams. Follow him on Facebook.

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