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.
In 2015, roughly 675,000 students opted out of taking state standardized tests. Although often characterized as a movement, the students opting out and the parents, teachers, and education leaders supporting these efforts represent a range of political, class, racial, and ideological interests.1 Yet this diverse group of actors, in staging mass refusals of state testing, challenged the purposes of standardized assessment in public education. This broad-based resistance intersected with large shifts in federal, state, and district policies around testing. Together, these changes shaped what Mitra et al. (2016) term a contested space of policy ambiguity, upending familiar leftright political distinctions and unsettling the landscape of assessment in many states. Perhaps because of this ideological diversity, opt-out groups have been politically successful in winning concrete reforms in many states. The diversity and breadth of the movement, however, can pose other challenges. In particular, what happens when various interest groupswhile united against testinghave different reasons for opposing accountability, as well as different views of what might take its place? Concerns about how accountability reforms have targeted communities of color, for instance, may stand in tension with arguments emphasizing parents rights to control education. In effect, broad agreement against testing may paper over more fundamental disagreements about educational reform, control, and equity.
In this study, we take a closer look at the fragile and ambiguous political coalitions organized against testing.2 To explore these issues, this study analyzes presentations from a 2016 national gathering of opt-out activists. Organized by United Opt Out National (UOO), this conference brought together opt-out leaders and activists from across the country and featured panels on the movements aims, strategies, and future directions, as well as several keynote speakers. While partial and limited, this gathering nonetheless offered a powerful glimpse of key ideas, discourses, and debates in the opt-out movement. This conference also came at a pivotal time. In many ways, opt-out activists had been incredibly successful: record numbers of parents had refused to participate in testing in 2015. This political pressure had built public awareness and contributed to policy changes. Nonetheless, the opt-out movement had never been more divided. The recently reauthorized Every Student Succeeds Actwhile providing states with some autonomyhad nonetheless re-enforced test participation rates. Testing had increasingly moved online, as districts focused on interim assessment programs and personalized learning software. In this rapidly shifting context, activists deliberated about scope and strategy.
Some activists advocated for aims that were radical and uncompromising, invoking terms like revolution and tying the movement to broader struggles against neoliberalism and privatization. Here, activists were suspicious of incremental actions and strategic compromises, particularly with larger organizations (e.g., unions, civil rights organizations) they viewed as insufficiently critical of education reform. Other activistswhile critical of privatizationadvocated for partnerships, especially with communities of color. UOO, as an organizing group, was strongly committed to diversifying the opt-out movement and prioritizing equity in public education. Yet activists disagreed about the best strategies to achieve these goals in ways that raised questions about race, power, and opportunity. Indeed, less than six months after this conference, the central UOO organizing group split apart.
The reasons for any division are multifaceted and complex, and UOO ultimately re-emerged from these trials with a reorganized leadership team. Yet moments of division can be instructive. We argue that these activists debates offer insights into the opportunities and challenges faced by social movements seeking to build coalitions across difference. Focusing on presentations at the 2016 conference, we ask: How do activists frame the aims and scope of the opt-out movement? How do they negotiate disagreements about goals, strategy, and inclusion? In what ways do these debates raise issues of race, class, and power? In effect, how might we understand the potential coalitionsand divisionswithin the diverse opt-out movement?
Resisting accountability reforms, opt-out activists were able to secure widespread changes to testing policies within a few short years. This resistance took shape amid broader debates about educational accountability and equity. McGuinn (2006) has described the rise of the accountability regime, a reform agenda that has relied on standardized tests to measure student achievement and hold public schools accountable for that achievement. This regime has been criticized on many counts: for narrowing the curriculum (Berliner, 2011), demoralizing teachers (Santoro, 2018), and incentivizing attention to some children at the expense of others (Booher-Jennings, 2005).
Many accountability reforms foregroundedat least rhetoricallyconcerns about equity. In many ways, NCLB aimed to shed light on longstanding educational inequities across lines of race, class, language, and special education status. Mandating high standards for all students, the law aimed to close the achievement gap by 2014. Indeed, as Sunderman (2008) notes, these bold goals won support from civil rights advocates. This promise, however, was more complicated in practice. As scholars have shown, the law relied on a simplistic understanding of the achievement gap (Fusarelli, 2004), failed to allocate sufficient resources to states and local districts (Sunderman & Orfield, 2006), permitted wide state variation (Davidson et al., 2015), and over-prioritized market-oriented reform strategies (Trujillo & Renee, 2015). In particular, accountability reforms and turnaround mechanisms exacted a heavy price on low-income communities of color, closing schools and offering few quality choices (Lipman, 2015).
Similar debates have shaped the opt-out movement. Many activists see testing as simply one dimension of a broader movement to privatize education. They frame test refusal as a form of radical, collective action designed to subvert privatization and accountability-oriented reforms (McDermott et al., 2015). But other arguments, also emphasizing equity and justice, have been made in support of state assessments (Bennett, 2016). Here, a broad coalition of civil rights groups, including the NAACP and National Council of La Raza, argued that standardized tests provide crucial information for addressing educational inequalities. For these groups, opting out denies parents crucial information about how their children are doing in school and damages efforts to advocate for equal education for all children (Strauss, 2015). Testing, in this sense, is a civil rights issue. Critics also note that opt-out numbers are highest in wealthier districts where the consequences of opting out are less pronounced: they receive less federal funding and bear fewer consequences from high-stakes reforms (Morial, 2015).
In one of the first national surveys of opt-out activism, Pizmony-Levy and Green Saraisky (2016) found evidence that the opt-out movement has been led by affluent white families; 92% of respondents were white and 76% of respondents had a household income greater than $75,000. Similar patterns have been documented in particular states and communities. For example, only 2% of New York City students opted out, compared to 20% of students statewide (Bennett, 2016). Some of these initial trends culminated in the emergence of the somewhat satirical Twitter hashtag "optoutsowhite" (K. Taylor, 2016).
Yet others have challenged this narrative, arguing that such simplistic accounts minimize the involvement of many low-income communities of color in opt-out activism (Currin, Schroeder & McCardle, 2019). Indeed, Ceresta Smith, an UOO leader, remarked in a media interview that
the black and brown voices have been silenced. When it comes to their participation in this movement you see just a handful of the same faces, and theyre predominantly white. You had a lot of African Americans involved but you dont see it. Its not visible. Its not publicized. (Quinlan, 2016)
Here, aggregate and state-level numbers potentially mask the activism of many communities of color. Moreover, these disparities also reflect longstanding issues of power and privilege. Opting out has been, at least in part, acceptableand politically persuasivebecause it has been driven by affluent white communities. As scholars have noted, similar forms of civil disobedience by communities of color are more routinely dismissed by policymakers (Akom, 2006).
How might we understand the potential coalitionsas well as the potential fault lineswithin the diverse opt-out movement? To conceptualize this political activism, we draw on key resources from social movement theory, particularly accounts of how social movements fracture and splinter over ideological differences. Political scientists and sociologists have long studied social movements (Gould, 1993; Tarrow, 2011), including movements around education issues (Mintrom & Vergari, 1996). Researchers have explored how social movements encompass wide and diverse combinations of organizations, coalitions, networks, and individuals (Diani & Bison, 2004; Simpson, 2015; Tarrow, 2011). In many ways, a movements strength depends on articulating shared goals across a diverse and sometimes contentious network of actors. Shared goals are central to a movements collective identity, or what takes shape when a collection of groups and individuals perceive themselves (and are perceived by others) as a force in explicit pursuit of social change (Jasper, 1997, p. 86).
Building on earlier accounts (i.e., Jenkins, 1983; McCarthy & Zald, 1977), scholars have examined micro processes within social movements, seeking to explain how structural inequality gets translated into subjectively experienced discontent (V. Taylor & Whittier, 1999, p. 169). In effect, how are social actors transformed into movement actors? What bringsand holdsmovements together? Here, scholars have emphasized the importance of collective identity, or building a sense of one-ness or we-ness that might knit diverse actors into a cohesive movement (Snow & McAdam, 2000). Scholars have established collective identity as a core explanatory feature of social movements (Polletta & Jasper, 2001), one that might help describe the rise and decline of social movements and the waxing and waning of movement participation, movement success or failure (Johnston & Klandermans, 1995, p. 21).
Other scholars have turned their attention to the challenges of buildingand maintainingcollective identity, especially in heterogeneous movements (Kretschmer, 2019; Walker & Stepick, 2014). This can be challenging, especially as movements are asked to negotiate differences over ideology (Benford, 1993), policy positions (Kretschmer, 2014), or particular strategies (Levitsky, 2007). These negotiations sometimes fail, leading to infighting, factions, schisms, and defections (Ghaziani & Kretschmer, 2018). At times, different groups or factions in a social movement differentiate themselves from each other to better compete for limited resources and members (McCarthy & Zald, 1977).
Some of this literature has explored splintering in movements, often across lines of race, class, and gender. For example, scholars of American feminism have explored how movements have sometimes struggled to negotiate race and class (Roth, 2004). Freeman (1975), for instance, explored how the womens movement splintered into distinct ideological (and demographic) branches. Here, movement boundaries are defined not only by shared values but by exclusion; in effect, social movements decide who we are by defining who we are not (Gamson, 1997). As Kretschmer (2014) argues, movements are defined both by the internal relationships among organizations, as well as the movements adversarial relationship with opponents and counter-movements (p. 895). Similarly, Holland et al. (2008) caution that movements are not made up of unified actors who occasionally disagree with one another. Rather, movements might be understood as collections of multiple and competing cultural discourses that seek to inform the actions of participants. Everyday actors, in diverse contexts, incorporate these discourses (e.g., concepts, ideas, practices, arguments) into their local activism (Wolford, 2010). Movements coalesce and splinter as different discourses come to defineor reshapea sense of collective identity (Gamson, 1997; Ghaziani, 2008).
Some of these challengesframing objectives, negotiating ideological differences, deciding on tacticsalso shaped dissension in the opt-out movement. Guided by this framework, our study focuses on how opt-out activists negotiated the contested aims and strategies of their movement.2 We particularly explore some of the multiple and competing discourses that shaped the actions of participants (Holland et al., 2008). Here, our study is guided by key insights from critical discourse analysis (CDA), which explores the relationship between discursive acts and the situations, institutions, and structures in which they are embedded (Fairclough & Wodak, 1997). While researchers have increasingly turned to discourse analysis to explore how issues are framed and presented on social media, there has been less attention on how activists speak toand witheach other (Taylor-Heine & Wilson, 2020). Here, discourse analysis offers a means to explore how issues of power are embedded, instantiated, and reified through everyday interactions (Fairclough, 2013).
We explore these issues through an analysis of presentations at a national conference of opt-out activists in February 2016. This gathering was sponsored by United Opt Out National (UOO), a small organizing group that supported opt-out efforts nationwide. As a national leadership team, UOO had prioritized efforts to reach out to diverse communities and emphasized concerns of equity and social justice (McDermott et al., 2015). They also faced challenges in negotiating the different aims and interests of their memberschallenges that were visible at the conference and became more pronounced in the months afterward. In this section, we describe the UOO organizing group, our primary and secondary data sources, our approach to data analysis, and the limitations of our study.
UOO AS AN ORGANIZING GROUP
UOO was founded in fall 2011 and was run by a small, core leadership group of 68 admins that collaboratively planned group strategy. UOO was conceived as a radically small-scale organization. Since its inception, it has had no central leader or director, no paid staff members, no headquarters and next to no external funding. Instead, the group is run by admins who make decisions and facilitate group activity (e.g., creating materials and providing advice on opting out, issuing press releases, coordinating actions, planning annual conferences, and maintaining a social media presence). UOO serves as a focused point for largely decentralized efforts to organize against testing but also articulates broader goals for the movement, including an equitably funded, democratically based, anti-racist, desegregated public school system (United Opt Out National [UOO], n.d.). This mission has compelled UOO to take stands against various interest groups involved in the opt-out movement, including advocates of homeschooling and vouchers. At other times, however, their strategiesespecially around advocating for parents rights to refuse testsdovetail with those same interest groups. But, in general, UOO sees opting out as a means to a broader goal: to secure equitable public education for all children.
The group took shape in 2011 when several activists in the Save Our Schools network connected around testing. Some of these initial activists went on to serve as the leadership group of UOO (McDermott et al., 2015, pp. 1722). In August 2011, UOO launched its initial Facebook page, which included guides on how parents could opt children out of testing. In March 2012, the group helped organize the first Occupy the U.S. Department of Education event. In April of the following year, UOO hosted a second Occupy the DOE event. This event included Karen Lewis, Diane Ravitch, and Deborah Meier, who, along with 175 other attendees, marched on the White House and rallied to protest corporate education reform strategies (Brown, 2013). Since then, UOO has held yearly gatherings, including a three-day gathering and march in Denver in 2014 (McDermott et al., 2015, pp. 7176), a conference in Fort Lauderdale in 2015, and the 2016 conference in Philadelphia that we examine in this study. These meetings were used to develop relationships with other activists and pursue collective action.
UOOs leadership had been aware of the complex and diverse identities of those who refused to take standardized tests. Early engagement with this complexity took place on Facebook, where UOOs leaders tried to express their goals for the opt-out movement and found themselves clashing with other activists. As Smith and McDermott recall: Within 24 hours of our Facebook site being up and available, we realized that there were many outspoken voices swarming the conversation on opting out, and many of these voices were rather contrary to our views and values (McDermott et al., 2015, p. 108). UOO ended up banning accounts from conservative activists who became hostile when asked to take their views elsewhere (McDermott et al., 2015, pp. 109110). This tension between a clearly defined set of goals and sustaining a broad coalition continues, and related issues have also surfaced around diversity.
While the leadership of UOO is racially and ethnically diverse, many opt-out activistsand most of the 2016 conference attendeeswere white.3 UOO had worked hard to diversify its organization and reach, inviting many local activists of color to speak, but these dynamics remained challenging and formed the backdrop of conversations at the national meeting. In our analysis, we focus on key moments where race and class were negotiated, debated, and occasionally elided. These conversations surfaced longer standing questions and debates in the movement and prefigured the groups splintering and reorganization in the fall of 2016. We argue that looking closely at conference interactions offers an opportunity to explore how a social movement manages dissent and negotiates its collective identity.
In our analysis, we focus on the conversations and presentations at a national gathering of opt-out activists. This two-day meeting, held in February 2016, was organized by the UOO coalition, and brought together activists from different state and local groups. Held in Philadelphia, the conference featured local activists, invited keynote speakers, and other topical panels (e.g., organizing, civil rights). The conference also featured presentations from UOOs leadership team. Whole group sessions, keynotes, and panels were video recorded by conference organizers and posted on YouTube for those unable to attend. These publicly available videos are the primary data source explored in this paper.4 Taken together, this data includes 10 hours and 48 minutes of video recordings, documenting five keynote addresses and six panel presentations. Table 1 summarizes these video data sources by session name, type, participants, and length. We chose to include the names of keynote speakers (e.g., Jill Stein), since their background was central to their inclusion in the conference. We also included the names of self-identified UOO admins, since they had been publicly associated with the movement and were visible as leaders. Sessions are listed in the order in which they occurred during the two-day conference.
Table 1. UOO National Conference Video Data
Our analysis was also informed by several secondary data sources, including key publications and materials created by UOO leaders. Several members of UOO had published an edited book, An Activist Handbook for the Education Revolution: United Opt Out's Test of Courage, that we drew on to provide context and history for the group and its aims (McDermott et al., 2015). We also reviewed the groups website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed, as well as blogs from several UOO leaders (e.g., Tim Slekar, Morna McDermott). We reviewed this material chronologically, cataloging key moments and posts (saving them as PDFs, images, and links) to create an interactive timeline of the group. As we moved forward in our analysis and certain themes became clearer (e.g., contested aims), we reviewed this timeline for insights. We then wrote up brief synopses of key events (e.g., the 2016 splintering), making sure to catalog relevant quotations, tweets, and links. In addition, early on in the project, we reviewed a series of webinars that UOO hosted in 20152016. For each webinar, we took open-ended fieldnotes, recording key exchanges and ideas. These fieldnotes helped to shape some of the preliminary questions we brought to our observations of the 2016 conference (e.g., questions about diversity).
While we drew on secondary data to provide context for our findings, this study primarily focuses on the conference videos. Video content has expanded rapidly online, providing rich sources of insight (Snelson, 2011), posing both affordances and limitations (Heath et al., 2010). Guided by insights from critical discourse studies, we understand videos as particular kinds of texts, ones that must be read with an awareness of their aim and audience (Fairclough, 2013). The videos in our study also document particular speech-acts by activists. They are not recordings of everyday talk, but are performative, declarative, and persuasive. Likewise, audience matters; in this case, presenters and speakers were communicating to like-minded activists (not to the skeptical or uninitiated).
Keeping this view of the data in mind, we employed a three-phase analysis process that started with open-ended coding, followed by more systemic coding against a common protocol.5 We then developed key categories and themes through analytic memos. The three researchers on our team started our analysis with the videos from the six panel sessions. We reviewed one video at a time and met weekly to discuss our impressions. Ahead of these meetings, each researcher wrote informal fieldnotes on each video, noting key exchanges and moments in the session (e.g., an exchange in Q&A), as well as possible categories of interest (e.g., strong moral claims about public education).
Based on these early discussions, our team created an emerging coding protocol around common categories and themes.4 We drafted this protocol over the course of our early analysis. We then used this protocol to re-code videos against common analytic categories. For example, we explored how each panel addressed (or did not speak to) the aims of the movement, their view of power, and issues of race, among other categories. As we moved through this second phase of analysis, we continued to refine this protocol, collapsing certain codes into larger categories and splitting others into smaller and more specific ones. This process draws on Corbin and Strauss (2008), who recommend starting with an open-ended phase of analysis, followed by successively more analytic phases of coding, phases they term axial and selective coding. While we divided responsibility for the secondary phase of coding (each researcher took responsibility for certain videos), this template allowed us to explore emerging themes more consistently across different recordings. We continued to meet weekly to talk through our secondary coding and make collaborative decisions about categories. Once we created a system for analyzing data across videos, we considered our key categories. For each major category, one researcher wrote a memo describing how this category appearedor did not appearacross videos, seeking to develop the hues, tones and textures of each category (Corbin & Strauss, 2008, p. 337). In writing these category memos, we realized that some were larger and more central (e.g., tensions of race and class), and that others were interrelated (e.g., power and aims). These memos structured our three thematic findings.
While conference videos capture key exchanges among activists, they are only a partial and limited snapshot of a movement. As noted earlier, videos of speeches are particular public-facing exchanges and cannot capture what gets said in smaller conversations or behind closed doors. Likewise, these videos cannot speak to the experiences of activists, nor their perceptions of dissent. While speakers often mentioned their motivations for engaging in activism, exchanges at the conference largely focused on shared concerns. Finally, we were not movement insiders, and we may have missed important nuances and references. Our observations were conducted at a distance and limited to a specific public-facing moment (interactions at one conference). While circumspect about our limited vantage point, we believe this moment was an important one, with the potential to deepen our understanding of opt-out activism.
In this section, we highlight key findings from our analysis of this national meeting. Across different presentations, speeches, panels, and questions, we explore the potential coalitions and divisions within this meeting of activists. 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 a fracturing movement.
In our analysis of the 2016 conference, all speakers, unsurprisingly, spoke powerfully about the harms of state standardized testing, including the loss of teaching time, the corruption of learning, andmost strikinglythe emotional toll of tests, particularly for marginalized children. Describing testing as trauma, (Panel 5), activists described how their children were labeled as deficient (Panel 4), causing them to lose their love of learning (Panel 4) and aspirations for the future. One recalled that her daughter wanted to be a cardiac surgeon until her test scores told her that she was not going to be one (Panel 2).
While naming specific harms of testing, many speakers underscored the rapidly changing and broader nature of the threat. Even as end-of-year tests had been scaled back, less visible online assessments and personalized learning models had proliferated. One activist (Panel 4) described how her research into competency-based education had led to soul-searching about the future of the movement: Like, what does opt-out mean? Are we driving this into some other future, that is scary and big, and we dont know how to grasp that? Raising awareness about the dangers of new technologies and private developers would be more difficult than opting out, which is really clear, something you can do. Still, she underscored that opting out offered parents an amazing gateway into a bigger organizing conversation necessary to confront new forms of privatization.
While many activists framed their initial involvement in terms of these harms, they quickly connected testing to the political, economic, and social context which made tests problematic. For some speakers, the tests were symptomatic ofand integral tothe rise of accountability reforms and the broader neoliberal restructuring of public education. Speakers connected testing to the political and economic power of international corporations, their interest in profiting from education markets, and systemic racism and class oppression. These diverse perspectivesones about broad economic forces, as well as concrete classroom experiencesbrought both insight and complexity to conference discussions. Here, different activists understood opting out as a shared strategy toward various ends. While there was clear agreement about opting out as a concrete rejection of testing and accountability-era reforms, there was less agreement about just how broad the goals of the opt-out movement should be.
For some speakers, opting out was a mechanism for mobilizing against global corporate capitalism. Peggy Robertson, a UOO admin, described opting-out as a way to inflict pain on those who use children to gain profit, status, and privilege (Panel 1). If testing was a mechanism of privatization, then opting-out was a political strategy to subvert this process. Indeed, the role of corporations was consistently identified as a threat to the public education system. However, the connections between corporations, government agencies, and testing were not always clearly explained. When corporate actors were named, it was most often the Gates and Walton Foundations. For example, one speaker listed Walmart, the Waltons, um, Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation, I mean, theyre behind everything were fighting in the country. Um, Pearson, who else? (Panel 1). The influence of corporations in promoting the private provision of education (via charter schools) and assessment (via large testing companies) was framed as a private takeover of public dollars (Panel 1). This takeover was a war against poor people (Panel 2). One speaker described the Walton and the Gates foundations, and the education reformers they backed, as poverty pimps (Panel 1). These corporate profiteers were accused of increasing their wealth at the expense of poor children, who were subjected to untested and unproven education experiments (Panel 1).
Yet private corporations and interests were not the only problem. Activists argued that the corporatization of public education had been made possible through the tacit support of federal, state, and local officials, as well as many advocacy groups. Here, many activists remained suspicious of education organizations, including unions, and celebrated an uncompromising stance. As Robertson remarked, we dont negotiate with childrens lives in order to get along and get a little (Panel 1). Panelists expressed distrust of the government, including both major parties and elected officials who continued to collaborate with education reform groups. The conference organizers decision to invite Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee for President, speaks to this distrust. Likewise, several activists noted that money is a powerful and persuasive tool driving education reform. As Ceresta Smith, another UOO admin, noted, the Gates money is just too compelling to actually go against anything Gates is pushing (Panel 5).
Some speakers quickly pivoted from corporate influence in education to the increasing influence of private wealth in politics. The Citizens United decision (Panel 1) and ALEC (Panel 4) were cited as enabling the power of money over politics. Testing was one symptom of this larger problem. One speaker described the enemy as having tentacles that most people didnt recognize because products and reforms were packaged so effectively (Panel 4). Another activist described resisting the privatization of public goods as the epic battle of our times, its the battle between corporate power versus people power, whos going to make decisions (Panel 1). Nearly every speaker at the conference was critical of the role of standardized testing and private corporations in education reform. However, speakers varied in emphasizing the scope of the movement and its priorities; we turn to these differences in the next section.
NEGOTIATING RACE AND POWER
Many conference speakers celebrated the opt-out movements ability to undermine neoliberal policy initiatives. While activists of color also valued this goal, they noted that challenging larger economic and political structures may not always result in justice for particular communities. One example of this differencebetween resisting neoliberal reforms and the need to think about the specific situations facing various communitieswas expressed by a keynote speaker, Antonia Darder. In her talk, she described how discourses of urgency are employed to curtail self-determination and block decision making, especially in the case of those pushing reforms:
People, they get urgent, they go, We really must do something, we must do something. But you know, if you push people and make them think they have to do it right now what happens is we dont step back and think critically about our histories, our culture the conditions existing in our communities. Hence, let us be careful how we frame notions of urgency in our struggle, for the discourse of urgency has also been well manipulated in the privatization movement.
While referencing how crisis narratives fueled privatization, Darder cautioned opt-out advocates employing similar language. Her commentsabout the differential costs of dissent for certain communitieswere aimed at some of her allies in the audience calling for more sweeping reforms.
Other activists framed this tension by contrasting efforts to challenge larger economic and political structures with the immediate need for better options for children in underresourced schools. One activist described this in terms of organizing against vouchers. She noted, Okay, yes, get rid of vouchers. But Black and brown families were benefiting from the voucher system, and you had no Plan B for them. Reformers dont talk about the Plan B, and dont talk about whats missing (Panel 2). She urged fellow activists to think about the consequences of opposing programs that, although symptomatic of negative forces, nonetheless alleviated elements of inequality. Careful to stress that vouchers are not an adequate answer, she underscored that students need timely interventions; such needs cannot be sacrificed to maintain particular ideological positions. Her comments contrasted more with incendiary terms, like revolution, unyielding, and radical change, used by other speakers in describing the opt-out movement. In effect, this activist emphasized how revolution may be riskier for communities of color.
UOO leaders were conscious of these issues of equity, race, and privilege, and sought to foreground the voices of nonwhite activists at the conference. Several UOO leaders referenced these issues, andin certain casesdeliberately stood aside to create space for local activists to speak. The panel highlighting Philadelphia activism, and a few others, directly spoke to the challenges of the opt-out community in appealing to communities of color. One activist addressed this issue, offering advice to the (largely white) activists in the audience: Dont come in with the idea that youre saving people. Take your S of your chest and the plumbers cap off as if youre fixing a problem. Nobody is broken. Instead, she asked potential allies to come offering information and in solidarity. Importantly, this activist contrasted solidarity with the sometimes-patronizing view that communities of color need to be empowered to opt-out. In effect, she pushed back on the condescending narrative that parents in these communities may not fully understand their interests in the opt-out movement. Other speakers emphasized forging coalitions across race and class and incorporating the interests of communities of color in opt-out efforts. Others cautioned that cooperation should be authentic and reciprocal, not subsuming communities of color into a larger agenda they may not (or may not completely) share.
SOLIDARITY AND SPLINTERING
Debates about the scope of the opt-out agenda also played out in conversations about building solidarity and in disagreements about strategies for doing so. Notably, panelists disagreed about how the opt-out movement should appeal to communities of color. One disagreement centered around potential connections with civil rights organizations and other education advocacy groups. Many activistsand, indeed, many activists of colorwere skeptical of the role that national civil rights groups (e.g., the NAACP, National Council of La Raza) played in defending testing and accountability reforms. Yet some argued that civil rights groups were not enemies but had been led astray by the allure of equity-driven reforms, perpetuating policies that actually oppressed students of color. Ceresta Smith, for instance, called on fellow activists to become partners with civil rights groups. They are on the wrong track [we have] to re-educate the people so that they can force the leaders of the group on the right track (Panel 5).
Activists acknowledged the important reasons that civil rights groups supported testing: to document racial disparities, advocate for further resources, and build more equitable educational outcomes. As one noted, They feel this is the great equalizer, to administer these tests (Panel 5). While acknowledging the argument, activists criticized how a narrative of civil rights had been employed by reformers to appeal to communities of color, particularly in Philadelphia (Panel 2). Charter schools and alternative teacher training programsaiming to disrupt public educationframed their efforts in terms of equity and civil rights. Denisha Jones, another UOO leader, noted the power of such frameworks (Panel 1):
If you want people of color on your side then you must start addressing systematic institutional racism. Theyre on the verge of turning this city [Philadelphia] into an all-charter district. And I constantly get people asking me, Well, what can we do? Why do so many Black and brown parents flock to these charter schools? Because the reformers are playing the civil rights game. They are saying your kids shouldnt be trapped in a failing school because of your zip code. Your kid shouldnt be trapped in a school because youre poor.
Here, Jones is pointing to a paradox: public education advocates need to simultaneously defend the public education system while acknowledging that this same system has historically failed to meet the needs of many children. In effect, she argued that opt-out activists must recognize the systematic racism of education in order to build meaningful cross-racial coalitions. Jones continued:
And we wonder why we cant get Black and brown folks on our side. They will come to us if we acknowledge that historically public schools have not served their children well. That is not the teachers fault. That is the system. And we have to acknowledge that and be right there with them and say, You know what, youre right.
Her words were addressed to the white activists in the audience. Diversifying the movement demands that activists consider the realities faced by communities of color: failing schools, limited options, and systemic racism. Other speakers on this panel underscored the need to reach out to these communitieseven to families who were participating in charter schoolsto help them understand the sources of injustice in education. Opting out, they argued, was not just for the already converted. One activist noted:
In suburbs parents are opting out in droves, mostly the white community. The greatest threat to the opt-out movement is the exclusion of communities of color. The other side is trying to get their hands on their communities, if they get ahead, opt-out loses. These reforms are affecting all students but disproportionately affecting students of color. By [reforms, I mean]: testing regimes, charter takeover, receivership models. We have to recruit more families of color (Panel 2).
This speaker underscores the necessity of bringing communities of color into the movement: not only are these communities the most affected by accountability reforms, but their participation could disrupt how education reform has been framed in terms of equity. To this end, several activists argued that the opt-out movement needed to reclaim the language of civil rights and to pressure national groups to see the harms of accountability reforms. As one activist noted, theres a need to infiltrate these organizations and organize at local levels (Panel 5). In particular, this activist remained hopeful that local chapters could resist and counteract positions taken by national groups.
But not all activists agreed. For others, compromising with civil rights groups and other education organizations was risky. Those groups had either explicitly or tacitly supported the accountability regime; working with them was an untenable and dangerous proposition that might risk UOOs core values. These divisionsvisible, but understated, at the conferencecame to the forefront in the months afterward, as the group dissented about partnering with allies in local union and civil rights chapters. These disagreements led to the temporary disbanding (and eventual reorganization) of UOO. Following the February 2016 conference, UOO leaders debated hosting a fall event in collaboration with the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT), an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. This local chapter had been supporting opt-out activism in Houston, even running an Opt Out Academy to help local parents mobilize against testing. But some UOO members were suspicious of collaborating with unions in any form. Unions had sold out teachers and parents by endorsing certain accountability reforms; they were part of the problem, not the solution. For other activists, progressive union chapters (and civil rights groups) were powerful potential allies. The eventual invitation to the eventcoordinated by a few leaders in UOOmade this latter position clear:
The gulf between civil rights organizations and education activists has not helped to provide workable solutions. UOO and HFT will bring together various civil rights organizations and activist groups to discuss the shifting landscape of public education and its impact on civil and human rights and civil society. The focus will be on creating alliances, building solidarity, and promoting a unified stance around the following issues: standardized testing, digital instruction, student and parental rights, allocation of funding, teacher quality, and the corporatization of public education.
This event was met with criticism by other UOO leaders and activists. One UOO admin noted that the organization was wary of being co-opted by organizations that seemed to endorse their values but would end up collaborating with education reformers. Another activist, writing on his blog, argued:
Just as Weingarten took over BATs, she has now neutralized UOO, thus eliminating another threat to the corporate reform/corporate union status quo. What is the evidence? Look no further than AFTs most loyal Houston affiliate sponsoring a joint meeting with UOO in October (Horn, 2016).
For this activist, collaboration with a union was a dangerous betrayal of UOOs principles, and its previous stance as an unyielding critic of education reform initiatives. He concluded: If you have been a past supporter of United Opt Out because of their fierce opposition to the oligarchs education agenda, standardized testing, and segregated classrooms, you need to look elsewhere for that kind of leadership (Horn, 2016).
In the lead-up to the event, five members of the UOO leadership team left the organization. The three admins who remainedall activists of colorreorganized the organization, recruited new members of the leadership team, and affirmed a series of new principles. Indeed, one of their core goals is now to continue the expansion of the opt-out movement in communities that have not been largely activated though are the majority of those most badly compromisednon-whites, students with disabilities, second language, and the impoverishedwith support from major civil rights groups whom we have helped to see the light (UOO, n.d.). In effect, the remaining members of the admin team addressed longstanding tensions about the aims and inclusivity of the opt-out movement. In the middle of the conflict, one of the remaining leaders wrote, on the organizations Facebook page: [I]ts been said that the Opt-Out movement is dead, this according to some of our allies; but know for sure that Opt-Out was never alive in our communities, so dont expect a funeral, but rather a revival, an awakening of a community that has been left behind (UOO, 2016). This powerful statement raised long-simmering questions about race and power. Yet it also signaled splintering and fracturing within UOO and among opt-out activists. Maintaining solidarity across divergent positions became perhaps too much for the broad, diverse opt-out coalition to hold together.
In many ways, the opt-out movement has been politically successful because of the broad variety of activists who identified with some of the central aims of the movement: opposition to standardized testing and accountability-oriented reforms in education. Activists also had a clear and explicit strategy (refusing to take the test) that had a measurable impact on the validity and reliability of testing systems in many states. Yet opposition to testing also united a diverse range of activists with different aims and priorities. Some activists emphasized that opting out was merely a starting mechanism in a larger battle to resist corporate influence and private interests in public education. Still others tied the movement to neoliberal economic reforms that resulted in the marketization of public goods. Other activists emphasized a resurgence of teacher autonomy and professionalism. Others saw opting out as a means to resist high-stakes accountability reforms, especially in marginalized communities.
Such diverse goals, however, can obscure potential areas of disagreement (e.g., about the role of charter schools in urban communities), and mask different interests. Here, the efforts of UOO activists to forge an inclusive movementand their struggles to do sopoint to the importance (and ongoing challenge) of recognizing the interests of communities of color in the opt-out movement. While the tensions that surfaced were legitimate and important, they ultimately led to a break, or what social movement theorists might conceptualize as splintering. As Kretschmer (2014, p. 897) contends:
Differences between organizations on some issues may start as relatively insignificant, but over time become so unmanageable that the movement splinters, with former insiders recast as outsiders, or even as antagonists. In other words, movements splinter when shifting boundaries disrupt collective identity among organizations by making latent differences suddenly salient.
In the case of the opt-out movement, longstanding issues (the inclusion of communities of color) and particular policy decisions (collaborating with local union and civil rights chapters) became newly salient markers. Disagreements about aims and strategy contributed to reshape the UOO organizing group, leaving certain leaders and activists outside its boundaries. The new organizing group that emerged was smaller and more unified in its aims and poised to reach out to communities of color. Yet such debates certainly also fractured and weakened their broad coalition.
Any coalition is complex; any situation is multifaceted. Movements grow and change, and people have multiple reasons for shifting their involvement over time and in response to key events. Opt-out activists were no different. The original group of six admins had already changed over the first five years of UOOs work; for such a small group, these leadership responsibilities would be difficult to sustain in any circumstance.6 In this sense, as UOO admin Morna McDermott wrote, its important to remember that there are five different people and five different sets of personal and/or political reasons anyone might have for stepping down (McDermott, 2016). However, addressing the splintering, she cautioned that some responses to the changes in UOO ha[ve] created a dangerous space (within our movement), a space she termedusing a phrase by Daignaultbetween murder and suicide. By this, she underscored her unwillingness to take a stand on either side of the debate and acknowledged the truth in both positions. Opt-out activists were right to be cautious in the face of the hijacking and co-opting of our movement by various forces. As she noted, We have become a wary, weary, and angry group of people. Regarding collaboration with unions, she wrote:
Do the leaders of national unions warrant our critique and mistrust? Hell, yeah. But we also have members of unions who are vigilant leaders who earn nothing but our trust and respect. So where is the truth about unions? Somewhere on the in-between. Between murder and suicide.
McDermott ended her post, asking:
How do we move forward in times of profound disagreement? What is the way out? Are we willing to move forward and remain in a complex in-between space that necessitates discomfort because it asks of us generosity, empathy and humility while also maintaining critical vigilance to our refusal to negotiate or compromise or sell ourselves out? I think we can.
We suggest that McDermotts callto linger in an in-between spacepotentially asks activists to reframe disagreements. Such disagreements, if met with generosity, empathy and humility, might be moments that strengthen movements, rather than tear them apart.
Here, McDermott is gesturing to some of the potentially productive qualities of dissent. As Ghaziani (2008) emphasizes, there are potential dividends of dissent, if groups can capitalize on disagreements about aims and strategy. While disagreements pose challenges, Ghaziani and Kretschmer (2018) contend that infighting does not automatically lead to splintering. Indeed, dissent may be potentially productive: some social movements capitalize on dissent to expand, rather than contract, the boundaries of their collective identity and build more diverse and expansive networks (Ghaziani, 2008). Likewise, dissenting opinions and discrepant views can generate multiple perspectives on how to strategize for change and execute campaigns (Ghaziani & Kretschmer, 2018, p. 228).
In this respect, we suggest that the divisions that led to the splintering of the original UOO coalitionlong simmering, and perhaps not widely acknowledgedwere perhaps a missed opportunity. Could it have been possible for UOO activists to work through such divisions? Might their leadership have been able to live in the in-between, responding to the concerns of many activists of color while also maintaining skepticism about national unions and civil rights groups? Here, certain strategies may have helped UOO to deliberate more productively about the multiple aims of their group and the differences of power between activists. Smaller, overlapping groupseach able to pursue different strategiesmight have offered spaces for the articulation of the multiple, overlapping interests in the opt-out movement. Could activists have formed smaller coalitions that focused more directly on the interests of communities of color? Could these groups have worked alongside allied groups, not on all campaigns, but on some shared initiatives? We suggest that it might be possible to cultivate solidarity without seeking to neatly resolve all tensions and disagreements. This small reminder may be a powerful one for other organizations seeking to forge cross-racial coalitions and movements in public education.
We use the term movement with some caution, as the many activists and parents opting out can hardly be understood as a unified group. Still, many media reports refer to the opt-out movement, and this term is also used by activists themselves, as well as in some of the available research on opting out.
We are grateful for insights from Michele Moses, Mara Taylor-Heine, and other members of our research team, including Wagma Mommandi and Amy Burkhardt. Thanks, also, for thoughtful comments from Catherine DiMartino, Kelsy Kretschmer, Oren Pizmony-Levy, and our external reviewers.
This judgment was formed by carefully observing the videos, which panned out to the audience during the Q&A sessions, as well as by comments from several panelists, who referred to the audience as being predominantly white.
The videos from the 2016 UOO national conference, as well as other events, are available at: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLYANTEJ0R9JS9q_6ZYuNx-aQMA-RfkmZU
Coding profile available on request.
UOO was formed in 2011 by Morna McDermott, Peggy Robertson, Tim Slekar, Ceresta Smith, Shaun Johnson, and Laurie Murphy. Between 2011 and 2016, Shaun and Laurie transitioned off the admin team, and four new admins were added, including Michael Pena, Rosemarie Jensen, Ruth Rodriguez, and Denisha Jones. In 2019, UOO still had eight admins, including three who stayed on the organization through the 2016 reorganization (Denisha Jones, Ruth Rodriguez, Ceresta Smith).
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