No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was signed into law in 2001 by President George Bush, backed by both Democrats and Republicans. The backbone of the program, allegedly designed to hold schools accountable for academic failure, is standardized state testing for students and educators. Rather than improve public education, however, there is now ample evidence that NCLB testing is part of a systematic effort to privatize diverse urban public schools in the United States. The objectives of privatization have been threefold: first, to divert taxpayer money from the public sector to the corporate sector; second, to capture part of the market, which would otherwise be receiving free education; and third, to drive out middle class accountability, leaving behind a disposable population that won’t have a voice about the inappropriate use of their tax dollars, nor the bleak outlook on their futures.
Whenever popular education is mentioned, Paolo Freire is usually the first name that comes to mind.1 But students of democratic pedagogy in the United States have plenty of home grown examples of their own to study. John Dewey, for example, who saw the public school system as fundamentally authoritarian, reproducing a “superior class… [whose] culture tends to be sterile [and whose] actions tend to become… capricious, aimless, and explosive….”2 He wanted teachers to teach children not by force but by inducement; and growth itself had to be seen as an end.3 Indeed, if American society was to become truly democratic, Dewey argued, the children had to be taught to “take a determining part in the making as well as obeying laws”4
In 1932, Miles Horton—taking democratic education to an activist level—founded the Highlander School in Tennessee, on the principle that people had the means to solve their own problems without relying on experts or institutions. Horton believed that a pedagogy that helped people analyze their own experiences, and that of others, would promote participatory democracy. Many organizers of the labor movement in the 1930s gained valuable skills at Highlander. In the late 1950s, Septima Clark made the Citizen Education Program at Highlander the foundation for the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) Citizenship Schools.5 In turn, the Freedom Summer Schools of Mississippi used the SCLC citizenship curriculum as a template.
Graciela Cruz finally had enough. Her daughter attended Huron Elementary School in Huron, California, a small farm community in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. Recalls Cruz, “One day, I went to pick my daughter up from school and she was holding a book… in a matter of seconds, the teacher comes out and practically tears it from her hands. And I asked myself, ‘Why take away a book that could help her?’”1
Being from a working class, Spanish-speaking, immigrant community, the parents were hesitant to speak out at their schools and felt that their concerns were ignored whenever they approached school officials.
However, in March 2007, after over 20 years of discouragement, the Huron community was rewarded with a new tool for school improvement. Public Advocates, a civil rights law and advocacy organization, and Latino Issues Forum, a policy and advocacy group, joined with Graciela and other parents in Huron to utilize the Williams complaint process—a means for everyday people to speak out against unjust school conditions—resulting from the historic Williams v. California settlement.
As a law student years ago, I learned the elementary principle every law school teaches: Without context, the law is only words on paper. History gives law meaning; to follow the letter of the law without honoring its spirit is to lose the flower of justice in the weeds of formalism. It’s a fundamental lesson that appeared lost in the recent United States Supreme Court decision striking down voluntary integration plans in the Seattle and Louisville public schools. Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the Court’s decision, took pains to justify his conclusion that the school districts’ plans were unconstitutional by quoting from legal briefs filed in another watershed case about integration: Brown v. Board of Education.
By invoking the memory of Brown, Roberts tried to equate efforts to eradicate legalized segregation with present-day attempts to create racially diverse schools. Because Seattle and Louisville used race as a factor to desegregate their schools, their integration plans, reasoned Roberts, were no different than past efforts that exploited race to separate and exclude. “The way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” he wrote. Plain and simple.
For more than a decade, Urban Habitat has used community-based education in the service of justice for communities of color and low-income residents of the San Francisco Bay area. Since its founding in 1989, a central element of Urban Habitat’s mission has been creating an understanding of the regional forces that determine disinvestment in infrastructure, education, transportation, housing, employment and healthcare access. More recently we have moved into new territory, investigating educational methods that can empower and educate impacted communities to push traditional models of development toward more equitable outcomes.
In San Leandro, as part of a larger effort called the Great Communities Collaborative, Urban Habitat has been partnering with Congregations Organizing for Renewal (COR) to provide training and access to resources related to public policy, urban planning, transportation, and housing finance. This work is aimed at educating neighborhood residents on the benefits of building affordable housing as part of the new wave of transit-oriented development.