Harvard Educational Review
  1. Quality Education as a Constitutional Right

    Creating a Grassroots Movement to Transform Public Schools

    edited by Theresa Perry, Robert P. Moses, Joan T. Wynne, Ernesto Cortés Jr., and Lisa Delpit

    Boston: Beacon Press, 2010. 192 pp. $13.00

    In 2005, Robert Moses—esteemed civil rights activist and educator—put out a rallying call for a new national civil rights movement. With his signature boldness and vision, Moses called on youth and adults, educators and organizers, researchers and community members to “use the Preamble to the Constitution as an organizing tool with which to assemble a twenty-first-century people’s insurgency, for a substantive constitutional right to a quality public school education for every child in the nation” (p. 90). Quality Education as a Constitutional Right: Creating a Grassroots Movement to Transform Public Schools assembles diverse voices from this nascent movement to ask the questions at the root of Moses’s call to action: What is quality education, and what will it take to enshrine it as a constitutional right for all young people?

    The perspectives represented in this small, powerful volume span generations, professions, and disciplines. The book itself is divided into three sections, with dual introductions by Theresa Perry and Linda Mizell. Part I, composed solely of an interview by Charles Payne with young Baltimore organizers, argues that youth are, and must continue to be, at the forefront of efforts toward educational justice. Part II explores how and why the constitution can serve as a medium for guaranteeing quality education for all, with pieces from legal scholar Imani Perry, educational scholar Jeannie Oakes, Industrial Areas Foundation organizer Ernesto Cortés, and Robert Moses himself. The final portion of the book turns its eye toward the classroom, taking on the question of what a quality education for students of color looks like through first-hand accounts from educators Kimberly Parker and Alicia Carroll and from research on Moses’s Algebra Project pedagogy from Joan T. Wynne and Janice Giles. The section ends with the always-compelling Lisa Delpit summarizing her advice for creating culturally responsive education.

    The understanding that current struggles are embedded in long histories of resistance is a major thread winding through Quality Education. This theme is particularly vibrant in Mizell’s introduction, which situates the proposed grassroots movement in the long African American struggle for education under even the most oppressive conditions. A second thread—brought to life, for example, through Parker’s inspiring account of two years spent building an intentional community of young African American scholars—is that culturally relevant, challenging, engaging, and empowering education is possible and is taking place right now. A third refrain is that of the interdependency of legal change and social action. The effort to gain a constitutional guarantee of quality education is not merely a legal battle. Changes to our interpretation of the Constitution have arisen, and will continue to arise, only through the demands of organized communities.

    This book does not offer a plan for action; it is not a manifesto. The closest it comes is Payne’s conversation with youth activists at the Baltimore Algebra Project, who organized to fight the underfunding of Baltimore Public Schools. One of the strongest and most energizing pieces in the book, this extended interview offers a glimpse of the energy, commitment, and youth leadership that will be required for success. This hesitancy to suggest a path forward is at times frustrating. In particular, though the theoretical piece by Cortés on the importance of education in a democracy and Moses’s historical narrative of the “African American struggle to move from property to citizenship” (p. 70) touch on relevant themes, readers could have benefited more had these authors brought their significant organizing experience to bear on how, in today’s context, we might move from disparate organizing campaigns to an interdependent movement.

    At the same time, the book’s greatest contribution is that it seeks not to propose solutions but, rather, to spark discussions. The authors are humble enough to know they don’t have all the answers—that’s where the rest of us come in. In this spirit, Quality Education is best read not individually but in groups. Whether informally among friends or as an intentional process in schools or organizations, this book is meant to be discussed, challenged, debated, and expanded on in community.

    In some ways this book mirrors what a movement for quality education must look like: it unites diverse perspectives and disciplines, forefronts the voices of young people and teachers, and asks deep, foundational questions. Quality Education is much more than an anthology—it is a practical and theoretical foundation for a vital national conversation about what we want for our country and our youth, and how we can get it.

    All royalties for this book go to the Young People’s Project, Inc., http://www.typp.org

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    Book Notes

    Storytelling for Social Justice
    by Lee Anne Bell

    Quality Education as a Constitutional Right
    edited by Theresa Perry, Robert P. Moses, Joan T. Wynne, Ernesto Cortés Jr., and Lisa Delpit

    Black Youth Rising
    by Shawn A. Ginwright