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Fragile Political Coalitions: Negotiating Race and Power in the Opt-Out Movement

by Terri S. Wilson, Ana Contreras & Matthew Hastings - 2021

Background/Context: Recent movements to “opt out” of state assessments have brought together a broad and diverse group of activists. While many activists foreground concerns of equity and justice, opting out has been concentrated in affluent suburban communities (Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, 2016). These differences highlight questions of power and privilege within the movement: in what ways is opting out more acceptable—and politically persuasive—because it has primarily been driven by affluent white communities? How has the opt-out movement incorporated—or elided—the voices, interests, and perspectives of communities of color?

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: To explore these questions, this study focuses on how opt-out activists describe the aims of their movement and how they negotiated tensions related to race, power, and privilege in education activism. How might we understand the potential coalitions and fault lines within the diverse opt-out movement?

Research Design: Drawing on the insights of critical discourse analysis (CDA), we analyze presentations and interactions from a national conference on opting out held in 2016. We focus on publicly accessible video recordings of major sessions (keynotes and panels) to describe how activists describe the aims, strategies, and potential compromises of the opt-out movement. We also draw on several secondary sources of data (social media, webinars, blog posts, and other publications from opt-out leaders) to add context to our analysis.

Data Collection and Analysis: We use concepts in social movement theory, including movement identity and “splintering,” to frame some emerging fissures among opt-out activists, particularly across lines of class, race, and power. We organize our findings into three interrelated themes, describing how activists framed and negotiated the aims of opting out, often across lines of race and class, and worked to build solidarity amid moments of dissent.

Conclusions/Recommendations: While politically successful in some respects, the anti-testing coalition remains fragile and divided, leaving its goals for equity-oriented reform uncertain. Certain longstanding issues (the inclusion of communities of color) and particular policy decisions (collaborating with local union and civil rights chapters) have contributed to fractures in the movement. However, activists may capitalize on dissent to expand the boundaries of their movement and build more diverse and expansive networks.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 5, 2021, p. 1-26
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23681, Date Accessed: 7/24/2021 4:08:42 PM

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About the Author
  • Terri S. Wilson
    University of Colorado, Boulder
    E-mail Author
    TERRI S. WILSON, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the school of education at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research interests focus on the connections between philosophy of education and education policy; in particular, she studies the relationship between individual choices in education, and how those choices intersect with the “public goods” of education, including equity, justice, and democratic participation. While much of her research focuses on school choice reform, she has also explored how recent “opt out” efforts raise longstanding philosophical questions about the proper scope of state and family authority over the provision of education. Some of her recent publications include, “When is it Democratically Legitimate to Opt Out of Public Education?” (Educational Theory, with Michele Moses) and “Contesting the Public School: Reconsidering Charter Schools as Counterpublics” (American Educational Research Journal).
  • Ana Contreras
    University of Colorado, Boulder
    E-mail Author
    ANA CONTRERAS is a doctoral candidate in the educational foundations, policy, and practice program at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education. She is conducting ethnographic research on how school leaders and parents navigate school and district family engagement policies in a neighborhood influenced by school choice, gentrification, and distrust. She is also currently working on a participatory research project with parents conducting research on the relationship between their school and their community.
  • Matthew Hastings
    University of Colorado, Boulder
    E-mail Author
    MATTHEW HASTINGS, Ph.D., holds a doctoral degree in educational foundations, policy and practice from the University of Colorado at Boulder. His research focuses on ethical issues at the intersection of education and technology. He currently studies the moral dimensions of attention and the role it plays in shaping our beliefs and behaviors, both inside schools and, more broadly, through our interactions with digital devices. Matt also analyzes how neoliberalism has shaped the field of education; he recently published a chapter, “Neoliberalism and Education,” in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education.
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