June 5, 2020

The Education War guide: As told through the best movie ever made

Let’s say you’re a civilian when it comes to the education wars.

You hear people arguing in jargon-laden missives that sound like “blah-blah-common core-blah-test prep-blah-charter schools-blah-blah.” ‘

It can be noisy, so I want to help you understand the debate in the simplest way possible: using clips from The Wiz, the best movie ever made.

First, a little context. There are two camps in the education wars: School Reformers and Anti-Reformers. The former camp pushes for new schools, the latter pushes for old schools.

The former wants results, the latter wants a monopoly.

Got it?

There is one thing both camps agree on. Both believe there is an all-powerful wizard behind some curtain who is intent on “destroying” public schools. The former calls this wizard Randi, Diane, or Badass. The latter calls the wizard Arne, Obama, or Gates.

Anti-reformers say School Reformers are corporate taskmasters who want schools to be joyless fear factories.

Watch this scene with Evilene and you will get the picture:

To counter this claim, School Reformers say Anti-Reformers want to keep poor people of color captive in a no-win education system. We are too believe schools can’t much for us academically so long as we’re not white or rich. And, anyone who tells us differently is selling us snake oil.

This is best dramatized by the Crows who make the Scarecrow recite the Crow commandments and sing the Crow Anthem. Watch, and understand that the Crows are defenders of the old schools, and the Scarecrow represents people of color.

To fully understand what we are to believe about our chances at success, here are the lyrics we’re supposed to sing:

You can’t win
You can’t break even
And you can’t get out of the game
People kee sayin’
Things are gonna change
But they look us like
You’re stayin’ the same
You can’t win
Get over your head
And you only have yourself to blame
You can’t win Chile
(You can’t win Chile)
You ain’t break even
And you can’t get out of the game


While the two camps fight about what is best for us, black folks have a inescapable desire to be fully educated and fully human in a society that has historically put up road blocks to both aspirations. Deep in our hearts and souls we yearn to find the place that is loving and affirming – a place where our children can achieve their full potential.

You can hear that desire in the words of Dorothy:

When we get lost in the Reform/Anti-Reform binary, we feel like Dorothy singing:

If you’re list’ning God
Please don’t make it hard to know
If we should believe in the things that we see
Tell us, should we run away
Should we try and stay
Or would it be better just to let things be?

At those times we should listen for a message back from our ancestors. It’s a message of hope that calls to us to remember our fight for literacy, numeracy, and education has always been a primary strategy for liberation.

We can learn if we remember the power of our own story.

Those ancestors speak through Glinda who reminds us “If we know ourselves, we’re always home, anywhere:

Home for us is the place where we are achieving, learning, and growing. It’s a place where activists for better schools want us to be celebrated.

But realize, telling stories of schools that succeed with black children who live in poverty threatens old schools and the employees that work in those old schools. Like the Crows mentioned above, they can’t have you closing the belief gap (e.g. the gap between what our kids are capable and what adults with low standards think our kids are capable of).

Expect push back when you celebrate the achievements of new schools. Anti-Reformers will quickly dispatch their wordsmiths to beat down the optimism.

It looks like this:

So, how do we settle the education wars? We realize that both camps have self-interest, agendas, power, influence, and money. Our focus should be on which one gets us home.

When engaging the two camps we should have only one demand: we want results for our kids. We want schools that make the grade, kids that pass the tests, and families that enjoy the benefits of an educationally empowered community.

We want a brand new day.

Whichever camp that delivers on that promise wins. Whichever one can emancipate us from a tired, old, defunct, misfiring education system that never was designed for our success

Let the church say yes.

This concludes my totally objective review.

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