White Suburban Moms, Coalitional Politics, and Anti-Racist Education Reform

Arne Duncan’s infamous “ white suburban moms” comment has been making the rounds in recent weeks. Diane Ravitch, a prominent critic of current educational reform initiatives, sees this as an opportunity. She argues that the media will never care about poor people of color and that we should encourage poor people of color to build coalitions with white suburban moms that “will benefit children and families of all colors and conditions.”

I don’t disagree with the need and power of coalitional politics. However, a coalition that accepts the premise that since society doesn’t care about poor people of color they should allow white suburban mom’s to represent their interests will never lead to anti-racist educational reform.

Allow me to illustrate my point with two schools that have experienced a large influx of Latino immigrants and are interested in opening two-way bilingual education programs. Though hypothetical, I have seen elements of both of these schools in my years as a bilingual education teacher and researcher.

School one represents the type of white-led coalitional politics Ravitch seems to be advocating. At this school the two-way bilingual program is advocated for primarily by members of the all-White PTA who are interested in having their children learn Spanish. They decide on a 90-10 program because they want to ensure that their children learn Spanish. A few Latino parents express concern that their children are only being exposed to English 10% of the day but these concerns are dismissed as simply not understanding how bilingual education works.

The first year of implementation many White parents complain that their children do not understand the lessons. The teacher begins to simplify the Spanish to ensure that the White children understand and even begins to spend part of the lesson teaching exclusively through English to ensure that they all understand the content. Under pressure from the White parents she also spends the small time dedicated to English focused on high-level uses of the languages with no modifications for the ELLs.

At the end of the year most of the White students test at grade level in English and have developed some Spanish skills. Conversely, most of the Latino students test below grade level in both languages. When the teacher reports this to the PTA many of the parents express concern that their children are in classes with students who are linguistically impoverished and that this may effect both their English and Spanish development.

It is decided that next year only students who test above a certain threshold in their verbal skills will be eligible for the program. Each year fewer and fewer Latino children are eligible for the program until the program becomes completely White with the Latino students relegate to monolingual classrooms and ESL pullout. Ironically, monolingual White students become bilingual while bilingual Latino students become monolingual.

Let’s contrast this scenario with school 2 where a truly multiracial coalition is developed. At this school as the idea of creating a two-way bilingual program emerges among the predominantly White PTA, the principal asks representatives from Latino community-based organizations to support her in reaching out to Latino families to gain their perspective on the issue.

Based on this outreach a disagreement emerges. White families favor a 90-10 model because they want their children exposed to as much Spanish as possible. Latino families express a similar concern about their children being exposed to English and favor a 50-50 model where both languages are used equally from kindergarten. After a great deal of debate, it is decided that the school will adopt a 50-50 model.

During the first year of implementation the program experiences the same problems as school 1. Unlike at school 1, it is decided that simplifying the Spanish taught is not an appropriate strategy. Instead, the bilingual teacher is provided extra coaching on ways of scaffolding language learning in both English and Spanish for language learners. In addition, students struggling with either language would receive extra one-on-one support from a bilingual paraprofessional.

At the end of the school year most of the White students test at grade-level in English though their Spanish remains fairly limited. Most of the Latino students test at grade-level in Spanish with some of them also testing at grade-level in English. As they continue through the program most of the students develop grade-level skills in English with many of the Latino students maintaining grade-level skills in Spanish as well. Few of the White students achieve grade-level skills in Spanish though they do graduate with the ability to converse, read, and write in the language.

The program is considered a great success. Though there continue to be many White families who sign their children up for the program almost all of the Latino families sign their children up. The program expands to 2 classes per grade with 65% of the students in the program from Latino families. Most of the students excel academically–especially the Latino students.

These two case studies illustrate that having the same goal is not enough to develop an anti-racist education reform coalition. A coalition that does not challenge institutional racism and does not provide equal space for the concerns of communities of color is doomed to perpetuate their marginalization. Only through active engagement and the willingness to place the needs of  communities of color on the same level as white communities can a coalition emerge that truly benefits all children. Anything less than that is tantamount to accepting the racist status quo.

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