The Fight for America’s Schools: Grassroots Organizing in Education
reviewed by Rebecca Cooper Geller & Karen Hunter Quartz - March 22, 2018
Title: The Fight for America’s Schools: Grassroots Organizing in Education
Author(s): Barbara Ferman (Ed.)
Publisher: Harvard Education Press, Boston
ISBN: 1682530957, Pages: 200, Year: 2017
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In The Fight for Americas Schools: Grassroots Organizing in Education, editor Barbara Ferman and her colleagues provide compelling case studies of teachers, parents, students, activists, and other constituent groups advancing democratic schooling in the face of prevailing market-based, neoliberal headwinds. Centered on efforts to fight against school closures and top-down mandates in New Jersey and Philadelphia, the book explores how different groups of people became involved, what their efforts looked like, what forces they fought against, and what allowed some groups to achieve their goals while others failed. Ferman approaches these education-focused movements as a political scientist, asking two primary questions: How can parents, communities, teachers, unions, and students effectively mobilize to provide a countervailing force in the education landscape? What do their current efforts look like, and what can we learn from those efforts? (p. 9)
The book is divided into seven chapters, four of which recount specific grassroots campaigns, while analytic chapters serve as bookends to the case studies. An introduction that provides a recent history of national education policy and the rise of neoliberal answers to educational challenges sets the stage for Ferman and Nicholas Palazzalos Chapter One. The authors analyze key factors that define grassroots activism, including the role of race, business unionism, and venture philanthropy. In Chapter Two, Stephen Danley and Julia Sass Rubin recount the efforts of grassroots coalitions in Newark and Camden, New Jersey to block the implementation of Governor Chris Christies educational reform agenda. Further, they draw conclusions about the factors that led activists in Newark to be successful while the efforts in Camden were not. Next, Elaine Simon, Rand Quinn, Marissa Martino Golden, and Jody C. Cohen examine how different organizations in Philadelphia focused their respective organizing strategies to challenge school closure plans. They show how each organizations distinct goals and leadership models allowed them to participate in the broader efforts in ways that were consistent with their missions and skills. In Chapter Four, Ferman presents a case study of Philadelphia-area parents participation in the movement to opt out of standardized testing. She explores how parents became involved in the local opt-out movement, their mobilization and organization efforts, and whether this issue served as a sort of gateway issue to get parents involved in longer-term, broader educational activism. In Chapter Five, Rubin recounts the birth of Save Our Schools New Jersey (SOSNJ), an organization that came together in order to respond to the state leaderships market-based educational policies.
The book closes with two analytic chapters. In Chapter Six, Ferman ties together lessons from the case studies, circling back to the factors outlined in the first chapter and exploring different avenues into education politics taken by the actors throughout the book. In the final chapter, DeJarnatt and Ferman evaluate market-based educational reform versus democratic schooling, and conclude with an equity framework focused on teachers, high standards and inclusion, equitable funding, and education as a community good.
The Fight for Americas Schools provides vital illustrations of coalition-building and community organizing taking place to defend democratic public schooling from privatization efforts. Chapter Threes recounting of this process in Philadelphia was especially enlightening, showing both the nuts and bolts of how groups established working relationships with one another as well as the tensions and challenges inherent in bringing together disparate groups with often competing goals. Coalition-building is frequently described as an important goal for which organizers should strive, but less often does one see a detailed exploration of how difficult it can be for different constituencies to coalesce. This book gives readers a clear picture of how groups in New Jersey and the Philadelphia area found some areas of common ground even as they disagreed on other issues, illuminating the nuances of local context that shaped how different kinds of coalitions were able to come together (or, sometimes, how they were unable to do so).
However, the book could have benefitted from a deeper analysis of the role of race, both in the market-based reform being challenged as well as in the grassroots movements themselves. As race is the first factor presented by Ferman and Palazzolo in Chapter One, the books overall engagement with it is less frequent than expected. The authors regularly acknowledge that race is important and that unions and public schools have historically not met the educational needs of young people of color or in poverty. They also emphasize that organizers must take these historical realities into account. Yet, there is scant reckoning recounted in these case studies. For example, Ferman states that some in the black community see standardized tests as important accountability mechanisms and are distrustful of the opt-out movement. Rather than engaging with how the history of racism in schooling has led families to hold that position and the implications of that history for opt-out organizing, she only describes their position as further complicating and sometimes inflaming the issue [of standardized tests] as black leaders often express their strong feelings in highly racialized language (p. 90). The historical legacy of racism in public schools is not only a challenge for organizing. Some scholars have argued that race and racism have fundamentally shaped school policy, pedagogy, and practice (e.g., Howard & Navarro, 2016). The books lessons about coalition-building and community organizing could have been stronger had it dealt more directly with that history.
On the whole, however, this timely book is illuminating, hopeful, and delivers on its goal of providing examples of how grassroots organizing in different contexts is pushing back against neoliberal school reform. In a contentious, polarized political climate that can be short on hope, The Fight for Americas Schools shows readers what coalitions (even tenuous, uneasy ones) have been able to accomplish in the face of assaults on democratic, public schooling.
Howard, T. C., & Navarro, O. (2016). Critical race theory 20 years later: Where do we go from here? Urban Education, 51(3), 253273.