If you want the best explanation of the challenges facing our nation's public schools and what parents, students, teachers and policymakers must do to fix them, look no further than University of Massachusetts professor Mark Warren's latest article, "Transforming Public Education: The Need for an Educational Justice Movement."
Warren's paper, published in the New England Journal of Public Policy, is a valuable primer on how our schools and students are impacted by broader inequalities in our society and how the seeds of an emerging education justice movement can take root and flourish into a political force to be reckoned with.
As Warren outlines, the problems facing American public schools are deep and tied tightly to circumstances outside the classroom:
"Our educational system is profoundly marked by racial and class inequality tied to broader structures of poverty and racism. We live in a society in which half of all black and Latino children grow up in or near poverty, often in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty with high rates of violence and inadequate services. They attend under-resourced schools which fail them at high rates."
As long as low-income students of color remain at the "epicenter of injustice in our society," change will only result from a full-fledge movement to transform schools and communities. For Warren, this means getting beyond technical or organizational approaches like reworking curricula or introducing charter schools. Instead we must transform the role of schools so they can provide the kinds of supports and services to students and their families that build stronger communities and combat poverty.
Warren sees reason to hope (as do we here at the OTL Campaign!) in the kinds of student, parent and teacher organizing taking place already across the country. Groups like Padres y Jovenes Unidos in Denver have helped build a national movement to end harsh school discipline policies that has garnered the endorsement of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder. Those efforts can be scaled up and broadened:
Students, teachers and parents at a rally with
the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools in May 2014
"The seeds of a new educational justice movement have been growing. They can be found in the rise of community and youth organizing efforts, in the development of teacher activism, and in the recent creation of new alliances at local, state, and national levels that connect grassroots organizing to a broad range of stakeholders. Many of these activists and stakeholders have begun to offer a program for school transformation that connects to broader efforts to address poverty and racism."
By Warren's count, there are at least 500 community organizing groups across the country working on public education, many of which are participating in the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), which brings together community and labor groups in cities and states across the country. AROS has been particularly focused on advocating for "community schools" as a model for providing critical wraparound supports like pre-k, after school programs, health services, English classes, job training, etc.