A Conflict Over Values That Nobody Can Win

The other day Neerav Kingsland wrote a response to an interview with Kristen Buras. The original interview was about Buras’s blistering critique of education reform in New Orleans, whereas Kingsland has been an evangelist of that work. Kingsland wants to create a system that responds to market-based pressures, which he believes will deliver more consistent outcomes for vulnerable children, while Buras believes that this kind of reform is in conflict with the democratic rights of communities of color in New Orleans.

Two statements from their respective pieces serve as striking counterpoints in a dialectic that has gripped education policy debates. First, from Buras, in response to whether or not she believes anything about the new system of schools in New Orleans is better than the status quo pre-Katrina:

“No, not really. There is very little evidence that things have improved.”

Here is Kingsland in response to whether he buys Buras’s point that democracy has been stripped from the African-American residents of New Orleans: 

“Pragmatically speaking, I view local choice as a much more effective democratic power than local voting.”

Ten years ago I might have cringed at Kingsland’s statement but ultimately decided that his position was the more defensible one. I believed then, and still believe, that life outcomes for vulnerable children are the measure that really matters in education. To deny the importance of increases in student achievement is to have a nihilistic view of the role of the public education, even if the schools in New Orleans are still far too weak by any reasonable absolute standard.

That said, after years of working on the ground, particularly in and with communities of color, I have come to view the dismissal of local democracy as equally noxious to the debate. The big problem here is that somehow we have arrived at a point wherein placing value on student achievement results is mutually exclusive to respecting the voting rights of African-American communities. There is no education reform in a world where the values of voting rights and student achievement are in conflict, for it forces communities to balance their current sovereignty against their children’s future. That is a fight that neither side can win, nor should want to fight.

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the state of our national education debates, and I am going to start doing more of that thinking “out loud.” I believe that education in this country is at a critical inflection point that necessitates some deep reflection on the tension above. Great educators and leaders have been making these points for years, and I am looking forward to learning from, and thinking with, all of you in the coming weeks and months.