Earlier this month, In the Public Interest, the Network for Public Education, and the Partnership for the Future of Learning released the report, “How Community Schools are Transforming Public Education.” This week, Jeff Bryant, the lead fellow of The Progressive’s Public Schools Advocate project and a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute, drew from that report for a piece he wrote for The Progressive. In the article, republished here courtesy of the author and The Progressive, Bryant placed community schools in the context of populist approaches to education. 


When pundits describe the current political zeitgeist as a drift toward “populism,” they’re generally trying to convince you that something very bad is going on. But it’s important to understand that populism, a term that basically means the will of the people, can swing both ways. Nowhere is this more obvious than in education policy and politics.

For at least the past three decades, education policy has been mostly dominated by centralized decision-making—an approach that punishes schools and teachers based on standardized test scores, and encourages privately operated enterprises like charter schools to compete against neighborhood schools. These are ideas that never enjoyed widespread popularity.

But now that the centralized approach seems to be waning, education has become a policy arena influenced by a greater number of voices.

Among those rising voices is the increasingly popular movement toward an approach called community schools.

According to a new report, the community schools approach is making headway in school districts “from small-town Florida to downtown Los Angeles.” It spotlights twenty-one public schools and school districts scattered around the country that are demonstrating the transformative power of this idea. The report, How Community Schools are Transforming Public Education, comes from In the Public Interest, the Network for Public Education, and the Partnership for the Future of Learning, three nonpartisan nonprofit organizations that advocate for high-quality public education.

The report’s diverse examples show how using the community schools approach in school planning, governance, and day-to-day operations has led to schools improving academic achievement, school safety, student attendance, teacher retention, family engagement, and other critical areas.

A constantly recurring theme throughout the report is how these positive results are gained by listening to the needs and interests of students and parents, and by collaborating with families and local stakeholders to address them, whether they are strictly academic or not.

For instance, when a Florida school district decided to address lagging student attendance, the school surveyed parents and learned that they had concerns about the safety of the neighborhood around the school. The school used that input to persuade county government officials to install new streetlights and sidewalks in the area. Attendance immediately improved, so much so that the school posted higher results on Florida state assessments.

In another example, when a school in a predominantly white district in Iowa had an influx of immigrant, non-English-speaking students from mostly African nations, the school gave the new arrivals more voice in determining school services, afterschool programs, and curriculum offerings. By acting on the input of these families, the number of discipline problems went down and the school’s performance on standardized assessments went up.

The report describes the community schools process as “listening to and empowering the people closest to problems at schools to guide the solutions to those problems,” a singularly populist idea.

Yet, the community schools approach seems to be on a collision course with another idea driven by populist rhetoric—the so-called “parent empowerment” movement.

Also known as the parents rights movement, its proponents tend to demonize public schools as essentially out-of-touch, “government” institutions that care little about the needs and interests of families, urging parents to turn to privately operated education providers instead.

One of the chief evangelists of this movement is Corey DeAngelis, who works for the American Federation of Children, an organization founded and bankrolled by former President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to advocate for school vouchers. At a recent conference hosted by the rightwing Heritage Foundation, DeAngelis called public schools “failing unionized indoctrination centers.”

DeAngelis also authored a book calling on parents to abandon their “assigned government-run” schools.

Another pro-privatization advocacy group that claims the populist mantle of parent empowerment is Moms for Liberty. DeAngelis has been a panelist at at least one Moms for Liberty event, and both DeAngelis and the group share an enthusiasm for school voucher programs and other forms of school privatization.

It’s not surprising that these rightwing operatives have already set their sights on trashing the community schools movement.

In a social media post on X, Moms for Liberty co-founder and co-leader Tiffany Justice called any expansion of community schools “a huge grab by the federal government to control public schools.” In another post, Justice warned, “Think about this for a second. They [community schools proponents] are putting washers and dryers in schools. Medical clinics. Food stores.” The horror, indeed.

Rightwing criticism of community schools goes beyond Moms for Liberty. “In short, ‘community schooling’ represents educrats’ wet dream: a world in which American children become wards of the government through their schools,” opined a contributor at The Federalist, a publication funded by conservative billionaire Richard Uihlein and DonorsTrust. The latter is “an ‘associate’ member of the State Policy Network, a web of rightwing ‘think tanks’ in every state across the country,” according to the Center for Media and Democracy.

Funding support for Moms for Liberty can also be sourced to other shadowy rightwing groups and billionaires, according to reporting by Maurice Cunningham.

While rightwing rhetoric promoting parent empowerment and school privatization may have the ring of populist fervor, it is, in reality, a careful construction of wealthy individuals and the advocacy organizations they fund.

In the meantime, public schools continue to be extremely popular with the parents they serve, and the community schools approach seems like a practical way to leverage that popularity and extend it for the betterment of students and families.

None of this is to say that popularity alone should carry the day in all matters education policy related.

Expertise also has an important role. And fortunately, there are studies, according to the How Community Schools are Transforming Public Education report, that have found that “community schools that adhere to best practices improve student educational outcomes, increase attendance, improve peer/adult relationships and attitudes toward school, and reduce racial and economic achievement gaps.”

Research studies on parent empowerment voucher programs, on the other hand, have found that these programs have caused declines in standardized test scores that are equivalent to or greater than those that resulted from disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the COVID-19 pandemic.

So if education policy, at least in the near future, is going to be driven by a populist wave, let’s hope the community schools movement is leading the way.

Jeff Bryant


Related Posts