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Race, representation and the parental choice movement

In the face of a well-funded, organized opposition around the country, the education reform and parental school choice movements need to become more representative of the communities they aim to help.

A panel at a charter school conferences discusses diversity and community involvement.
A panel at a charter school conferences discusses diversity and community involvement.

Kenneth Campbell, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, was not alone in making that case Tuesday at the National Charter Schools Conference in Las Vegas.

Kicking off a panel discussion, he pointed to incidents around the country, from the latest skirmish over charter schools in New York City to a short video that he said portrays the rise of an all-charter school district in New Orleans as a “nefarious plan” by outsiders looking to “take over schools.”

“It really gives me the sense that there will be increasing efforts, and I think more sophisticated efforts, to ensure that the vulnerable places that we have in the reform movement can be exploited,” he said.

Campbell said shoring up those vulnerabilities will require the movement to build stronger ties with the low-income and minority communities in which it works, and to give those groups the ability to “jointly own reform.”

Issues of race and representation have often lurked in the background of the movement to expand school choice and equal opportunity in education. Charter school supporters confronted them publicly during several speeches and workshops at the Las Vegas conference.

“We have allowed people who are not representative of the people that we’re serving to control this movement and be the face of this movement,” Jamilah Prince-Stewart, the director of community engagement at ConnCAN, said during the panel Campbell introduced. As a result, she said, it should be no surprise when “the very people that we’re trying to help are not receptive to what we’re delivering.”

Price-Stewart said school choice and education reform organizations should be willing to “put numbers on paper” to show their hiring reflects the mix of people they serve. She and her fellow panelists also said organizations should look to hire first-generation college graduates and people from low-income backgrounds, who can demonstrate the promise of social and economic mobility.

Jeremiah Grace, the Connecticut state director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network, said charter school advocates could also take a few tactical cues from the groups that mobilize against them.

“They’re organized. They’re out on the streets. They’re talking to communities,” he said. “We need to get into that game more.”

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)