Are Gangs Killing Public Education?

In the education wars, you could say that the Bloods and Crips manifest themselves as reformers and progressives

My years of working in education in New Orleans take me back to the burgeoning gang scene in Pittsburgh in the early ’90s. If you’ve ever lived in a gang environment, you recognize one by any other name.

I’m not talking about disaffected youth bonded by drug cartels, neighborhood beef or poverty; I’m referring to the gang behavior among grown men and women charged with educating our children.

In the education wars, you could say that the Bloods and Crips manifest themselves as reformers and progressives.

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Hard line progressives are often predictably against charters and in favor of labor unions, particularly for teachers. They seek to eradicate poverty, racism and segregation. Reformers, in turn, usually favor charters. They may also be unconsciously against the labor movement and traditional school boards.

These two, polarized, factions are blindly drawing aim at charter schools, traditional elected school boards, unions and school vouchers. The rest of us duck.

In education, some will have you believe that reform is all bad. Take the charge, ‘Charter schools are destroying public education.’

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An aside — charter schools are neither good nor bad. Chartering changes the governance structure, but the same things that go into making good traditional school make for a good charter school. You have charters that are exemplars of community schools and for-profit, corporate workstations — just like traditional schools.

It’s the gangs that make a nebulous thing like a charter school good or bad.

The language isn’t subtle. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has called unions the “single most destructive force in public education in America.” On CNN, he reaffirmed that unions “deserve a punch in the face.”

Related: Enough about Katrina’s anniversary, who will care about the city’s future? exemplifies all there is in a turf war. The group’s website describes itself as a “community partnership” that is “fighting for what we think is right, and what we think is best for the community.” The group literally maps what it says is an unwarranted takeover of a traditional sub-district.

The organizing group Resistance to Teach for America is partly comprised of disaffected alumni whose aggressive stance against their former employers gives the appearance they’ve become turncoats. Bellwether Education’s evaluation of the organization found that the fight has taken a toll on TFAs recruitment: “While a variety of factors have contributed to this trend — including an improving economy that increased employment options and competition for recent college grads — it is clear that the polarized education climate and external critiques have had an impact.”

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Opposing factions are fighting one another and selling their own platforms. Meanwhile, no one is putting their attention on fixing durable problems like the teacher pipeline. In places like New Orleans, the need for new, effective and local teachers existed before Teach for America expanded. It still exists ten years after the storm. Yet the narrative setting is so toxic, you can’t critique anything that comes out of New Orleans without shots being fired.

Gangs dare you to ‘say something’ (truth) against them.

What’s palpable in education is the belief that, ‘You’re either with us or against us.’

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Battles for control of public education have always been intense. However, the only innovation that’s resulting from the education reform wars is the creative ways factions are defending their turf.

Defending reform isn’t about protecting black and brown people — it’s about the protection of the investment. Defending tradition isn’t protecting low-income students – it’s a defense of status quo. Defending students requires a blind pragmatism that crosses party lines.

Joining a gang may provide strength, but you can’t be in a gang to find real answers.

The decision not to be in a gang is logical but difficult one to make. Joining is a setup for an inevitable fight, and not belonging puts you in hood purgatory.

Most make the logical choice, but your neck is on swivel for the crossfire of rival gangs. And if in the wrong neighborhood, you’re constantly harassed with, “Where you from?” “Why are you hanging with those thugs?”

Ask kids in the ‘hood about not representing a gang; they will tell how vulnerable they are to attack.

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So to distinguish themselves as neutral, people may dress in black, which puts them in a gang-light crew of people loosely affiliated by the shared interest of living. But the “Hold Harmless Crew” lives in a constant state of anxiety. No one trusts them. But they don’t trust anyone either.

The non-affiliated become resilient and eventually embrace their position. Gangs forget the people in black are the majority, and they lose their slight hold on the people who were lost in their fights.

The rest of us are tired of the fights in education. If the gangs would look around they’d find out they aren’t as big as they think.

This is why I wear black.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).