Skip to main content

The Power of Educational Justice Movements

Mark Warren

This blog is part of the series, Education and the Path to Equity, examining issues of education and equity 5 decades after the Kerner Commission issued its seminal report on racial division and disparities in the United States.

Fifty years after the release of the report of the Kerner Commission, our nation remains profoundly divided and unequal along racial and class lines. Nowhere is this clearer than in the education and life chances of our children and young people. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s spawned a war on poverty and a broad set of social reforms that led to significant progress in educational attainment and well-being of African Americans and Latinos through the 1970s and ’80s. Yet a conservative retrenchment halted progress in closing the racial “gap” in educational outcomes. By the early 2000s, a new system of racial inequality had established itself, in which large proportions of Black and Latino children live in areas of concentrated poverty, attend under-resourced schools, and face discriminatory policing and mass incarceration.

Challenging this “New Jim Crow” system requires a renewed educational justice movement that is connected to a broader movement to address poverty and racial inequities across schools and communities. Social movements mobilize those most affected by injustice and build larger alliances with multiple stakeholders. Through these processes, they build the political power to push change in deep-seated systems of injustice and also create a moral force to win over hearts and minds to their cause.

For the past several years, my colleagues and I have been conducting research on one of the nation’s most successful educational justice movements, that is, grassroots organizing and movement building to combat the school-to-prison pipeline. The movement has focused on ending zero-tolerance and exclusionary discipline policies and implementing more humane alternatives, such as restorative justice. Scores of community-organizing groups work with parents and secondary school students to advocate for these policy changes at the local and state level. The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) brings these groups together with civil rights advocates, lawyers, and researchers at the national level in ways that provide resources to strengthen local and state campaigns.

In our research, we have found that this new movement is winning policy victories through the combination of research-based evidence and the personal stories of parents and students who are directly impacted by injustice, and by building broader alliances to bring more resources and clout to lobbying efforts. For example, Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), a coalition of organizing groups that mobilize youth—primarily youth of color from low-income families—who are attending secondary schools in Chicago, helped push the district to revise its student code of conduct to move away from zero-tolerance approaches.

We have found that this new movement is winning policy victories through the combination of research-based evidence and the personal stories of parents and students who are directly impacted by injustice, and by building broader alliances to bring more resources and clout to lobbying efforts.

In 2011, the coalition launched a state-level campaign to pass a bill in the Illinois legislature that VOYCE wrote with assistance from the Advancement Project, a national civil rights advocacy group. VOYCE recruited a key ally to sponsor the bill—the chair of the Illinois Senate Education Committee, Kimberly Lightford. The bill, SB100, promised to be the strongest anti-zero tolerance legislation in the country, banning, among other things, automatic suspensions or expulsions unless the student poses a risk to safety, and requiring alternatives to be tried.

VOYCE assembled and analyzed data from the Civil Rights Data Collection and other research to back its claim that exclusionary discipline was a widespread problem across the state, caused unnecessary loss of instructional time, and disproportionately impacted students of color. In fact, VOYCE showed that Illinois had some of the highest racial disparities in suspension rates in the country. It also assembled a larger coalition, the Campaign for Common Sense Discipline, to mobilize sympathetic educator, legal, and advocacy groups to lobby the legislature and demonstrate broad support. Nevertheless, VOYCE had to address the narrative that zero tolerance is necessary to remove the “bad” students so that the “good” students can learn.

For several months, scores of students from VOYCE made the three-hour drive to the state capital on a weekly basis to speak personally to legislators and tell their stories of disciplinary injustice. This was a huge commitment on the part of students and a big investment of organizing time and resources. Carlil Pittman, an African American young man, told his story of being expelled from school because he overstayed the lunch period when his girlfriend told him she was pregnant. He lost a semester of school, but eventually graduated and became a youth organizer for VOYCE. Through these personal stories, students put a human face on the school-to-prison pipeline and gave legislators a sense of moral urgency to act. These were not dangerous, “bad” students, but rather civically engaged, model young people. Students took selfies with legislators when they agreed to support the bill and posted the smiling photos on social media. Legislators reported that the personal connection to impacted students who had become leaders in the school made them want to be on the “right side” of this issue.

A broad majority of legislators voted to pass SB100 in 2015, and it went into effect at the start of the 2016 school year. According to reported data from the Illinois State Board of Education, expulsions without services decreased by more than 28% and out-of-school suspensions fell by 21% over the first year. Some schools have seen dramatic changes when they aggressively implement the restorative justice programs supported by SB100. For example, Sullivan High School on the north side of Chicago saw suspensions fall from 700 (out of a student body of 800) in 2012 to 50 in 2016 through the systemic implementation of peace circles.

This blog is part of the series, Education and the Path to Equity, examining issues of education and equity. More from the series >

Community organizing groups are repeating this strategy of combining evidence, stories, and broad alliances in localities across the country. Through national alliances such as DSC, they share the specifics of these campaigns and adapt to particular local contexts. The result has been a series of policy victories across the country, with new policies often building on their predecessors elsewhere in the country. As Kavitha Mediratta shows, a similar strategy was used to push the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice to issue new guidance to school districts warning against harsh and racially inequitable school discipline and encourage positive and restorative alternatives.

This research has important implications for researchers and policy advocates trying to address racial inequities in schools and communities. Evidence-based policy expertise is necessary but insufficient on its own to move policymakers. It needs to be combined with two key contributions that come from grassroots organizing by parents and young people and their allies; that is, the political power to influence policymakers and the moral force to win over hearts and minds. All those who care about educational justice have a stake in supporting and finding ways to partner with grassroots groups to build a strong and effective movement supporting the success of all of our children.

Mark R. Warren is Professor of Public Policy and Public Affairs at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is the author of Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out! Voices from the Front Lines of the Educational Justice Movement (Beacon Press, 2018) which contains many examples of grassroots organizing and alliance building for educational justice.