Writing “the People” Back In

*This post is part of our online roundtable on Elizabeth Todd-Breland’s A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s

Chicago Teachers’ Strike, 2012 (Flickr: Rickmke)

In 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike for the first time in nearly twenty-five years. Marshaling the weight of Chicago’s Black and Latinx communities, including teachers, parents, and students, the teachers’ strike introduced the nation to a Black education movement that was built on decades of political struggle. These teachers used the strike to demand increased pay, smaller class sizes, access to instructional resources, and the return of arts and physical education classes. They posed an organized challenge to the consequences of neoliberal education policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Such policies overemphasized high-stakes testing, the privatization of public education, and market-based strategies in education reform. The strike placed questions about what counts as quality education for Black children at the heart of contemporary educational politics. While a general argument in the broader public demands that scholars and activists “keep politics out of education,” historian Elizabeth Todd-Breland’s A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s shatters this false distinction by wading into the histories that produced the 2012 CTU strike and the neoliberal policies that have shaped the terrain of education reform for nearly thirty years.

As a social and intellectual history, A Political Education examines “Black education reformers’ community-based strategies to improve education beginning during the 1960s and shows how these efforts clashed with a burgeoning neoliberal educational apparatus during the late twentieth century […]” (2). Historically, scholars and laypeople have characterized the business elite and local politicians as traditional education reformers. However, using oral history interviews and the archived collections of community organizations and public and private institutions, A Political Education urges scholars to rethink who counts as an education reformer and theorist. Todd-Breland forcefully argues that our conception of education reformers and theorists must include Black women and youth as well. By focusing on “the people,” a hallmark of social history, the author reveals the long struggle over what she calls the “politics of Black achievement.” In the process, she offers an alternative view of the “urban crisis.” While much of this scholarship has examined the post-1960s as a period of demobilization, A Political Education suggests that analyzing education as a site of political struggle renders legible an alternative narrative where community organizing becomes legible. Writing in the tradition of social movement scholars like Barbara RansbyCharles PayneRhonda Y. Williams, and Annelise Orleck, Todd-Breland draws up on the rich history of the African-American organizing tradition. She masterfully holds in tension the state’s actions and the local community’s organizing efforts.

A Political Education uses “the politics of Black achievement” as its frame to suggest that regardless of whether or not education reformers identified as liberal, radical, conservative, or accommodationist, they represented a cohort of reformers who were committed to “demonstrating that Black students could achieve whether or not the schools they attended were segregated” (10). This set of politics was grounded in a “Black self-determinist” view that liberal social science policies and educational reports — such as Brown v. the Board of Education, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family: The Case For National Action, and the Coleman Report — were steeped in ideas about Black inferiority and cultural pathology. Therefore, any argument that called upon the state to reform education had the markings of these racist ideas. Therefore, Black reformers pursued self-determinist strategies that sought to disrupt notions of Black pathology.

A Political Education is organized both chronologically and thematically, in two sections. Using the personal and political lives of these women like Rosie Simpson, Barbara Sizemore, Carol Lee, Soyini Walton, and Lillie Peoples. the author reveals the possibilities and limits of “the politics of Black achievement.” Since the 1950s, Black Chicagoans have pursued a range of strategies aimed at improving the quality of education for Black children, including desegregation, community control, independent Black institutions, demands for increased Black representation in the teaching force, and school choice. A Political Education offers a critical examination of each of these strategies as it argues that this diversity of educational thought constitutes the “politics of Black achievement.” This framing is particularly useful for thinking about the continuities and discontinuities in Black education, organizing, and politics throughout the last half of the twentieth century.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Black Chicagoans pursued school desegregation as the core strategy of reform. Some Black reformers, like Barbara Sizemore, opposed desegregation as main thrust of education reform. However, when education leaders began to craft desegregation plans like busing, which suggested Black students’ racial inferiority and upheld notions of white supremacy, Black Chicagoans came to view this strategy with great ambivalence. With the emergence of the Black Power and Black Arts movements, Black students, parents, and teachers began to organize on their own behalf, fighting for community control of schools and independent Black educational institutions throughout the 1960s and 1970s. As a case in point, these organizers aimed to make the Woodlawn Experimental Schools Project (WESP), “an experimental school and urban education research laboratory in Woodlawn,” more responsive to their quest for a culturally responsive curriculum and teaching force. Todd-Breland argues that WESP — which was founded as a collaboration between the University of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools, and The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) — was the precursor to the public-private partnerships that are the hallmark of contemporary educational policy. This partnership, however, limited the actual power students, parents, and teachers had over the school, including decisions about personnel who the community deemed indifferent to community control.

While community control advocates worked within the school system, others worked outside of the system, including the Institute of Positive Education (IPE), which created the New Concept Development Center (NCDC) as an African-centered school. It’s educational program, as conceived by Carol Lee, introduced students to Black History, music, and dance, among several other subjects. For IPE, the path to quality Black education rested on a curriculum that molded “students into Pan-African transnational citizens […]” (99). However, in relying on a cadre-based leadership, IPE moved away from community organizing and control of Black education.

The 1970s and 1980s saw Black teachers develop a stronger political base and influence in Black communities just as federal policymakers began to cut funding for schools and social programs. Organizers and teachers — of which Black women were the majority — joined political groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)’s Operation Breadbasket. However, once they gained access to Chicago’s political machine through the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), their fight for representation as education professionals and members of the middle-class public sector placed them in conflict with the local community. Here, the politics of achievement pressed educators to negotiate between the politics of representation and progressive educational programs.

In the second half of A Political Education, readers witness how education leaders turned to the business community in response to funding issues, a process Todd-Breland contends marked the rise of neoliberal education policies. The business community claimed that the path to quality education was paved with market-based strategies such as corporate models of management and assessment that treated students as factory products. These neoliberal policies sought to recentralize decision-making processes and revealed just how little trust education leaders had in Black working-class mothers and organizers to determine what quality education meant for Black students. Even still, Black teachers persisted, using their newly gained power to push Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, to see the community as Chicago’s core education experts. Their efforts produced local school councils which aimed to place the decision-making power into the hands of local communities.

Despite achieving some power under Mayor Washington’s administration, the Black Chicagoan’s had to contend with a new mayor’s fight for recentralization after Washington’s passing in 1987. Under Democratic Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, business elites found a proponent of mayoral control and corporate management practices. Todd-Breland suggests that it was at this moment when business elites used Black Chicagoan’s demands for control to argue for school choice policies such as selective schools and charter schools. For Black education reformers like the IPE, it became important to discern if or how they might use state resources to achieve quality education for Black children. The “politics of Black achievement,” the author suggests, created the path for IPE to become a charter school, which would allow its founders some control while also receiving financial support.

A Political Education is a thoroughly researched and well-written treaty on what is at stake in the current debates on public education. While Todd-Breland does an excellent job of keeping the reader attuned to both community and state responses, I wanted to see how engaging with Black women’s intellectual history might enrich our understanding of the gendered and classed contours of Black women’s responses to neoliberal education policies. For example, did women’s responses differ from their male counterparts? Nevertheless, Todd-Breland’s work is a welcomed addition to urban history, the history of Black education, and social movement historiography. Furthermore, it is particularly instructive for the new phase of the African-American organizing tradition that includes the work of BYP100 and Black Lives Matter.

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Dara Walker

Dara Walker is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Her research and teaching expertise include African American history, the history of children and youth, urban history, 20th-century U.S. history, and public history. She holds a PhD in History from Rutgers University, an MA in Pan-African Studies from Syracuse University, and a BS in African American Studies from Eastern Michigan University as a Ronald E. McNair Scholar. Dr. Walker is currently writing her book manuscript, High School Rebels: Black Power, Education, and Youth Politics in the Motor City, 1966-1972, which examines the role of the high school student organizing tradition in the development of Black radical politics of the Black Power era. Her research has been funded by the Ford Foundation's Dissertation Fellowship, the Walter P. Reuther Library's Albert Shanker Fellowship for Research in Education, and Rutgers University. Her review articles have appeared in several journals, including The Black Scholar, Feminist Studies, and The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, in addition to her online publications for Black Perspectives. Follow her on Twitter @afroshedoc.