Empower teachers to empower students – Gerard Robinson, podcastED

Travis Pillow


Over the past few weeks, the NAACP has faced constant pushback from education reformers and school choice advocates for its proposed stance against charter schools. Some of that pushback has come from Gerard Robinson, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who recently wrote a series of blog posts unpacking the proposal

However, on our latest podcast, he says it’s important to remember where the civil rights organization is coming from. The organization’s advocacy forced many public schools to integrate for the first time, he says, and helped pave the way for him to become a state education chief in Virginia and then in Florida.

“When they say they want to make sure that public schools are open to all kids, they’re speaking from a standpoint of knowing it wasn’t always that way, and that if they see that kind of spirit cropping back up, they’re going to attack it,” Robinson tells Denisha Merriweather, a former tax credit scholarship student who’s now a family advocate at Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog. “In their world, they see charter schools as part of that. I don’t.”

To borrow a term from Robinson’s writing on the NAACP, he says he (like many members of Merriweather’s generation, for whom choice and customization come naturally) sees charter schools as a “liberty-based” approach to education, in which educators decide where they work, and parents decide where their children attend. The goal of charter schools and other options outside of traditional school districts, he says, is to “empower teachers, so they can empower students.”

But those who disagree with the NAACP’s positions on school choice shouldn’t blithely attribute its stance to the money it receives from the teachers unions or other groups. Education reform organizations have their own financial backers, he says, and those charges can cut both ways.

Robinson is also a previous president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. The organization is holding a national competition in hopes of finding new leaders who can help the organization, founded to advocate for low-income and working-class black families, reinvent itself.

“When have you seen a black organization put over half a million dollars on the table, saying, ‘come to the table, help us think differently, and we’ll invest in you?'” he asks.

Education reform has more black leaders in positions of authority than it had 17 years ago, when BAEO first launched, Robinson says, citing the American Federation for Children and the New Schools Venture Fund, among other organizations. But he says he’d still like to see more black leaders funding school reform.

“What I would like to see next is to have more African-Americans in positions of leadership at foundations, so that when multi-million-dollar decisions are being, made, we’re at the table, helping shape that conversation,” he says. “I would also like to see more black philanthropists invest in this movement.”

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