Earlier this month, Ascend, the high-performing Brooklyn charter-school network, fired its accomplished founder and CEO, Steven Wilson. What had Wilson done to deserve this? Not much.
Wilson, a school leader with decades of experience, a onetime senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and the author of two books on school reform, became perhaps the most visible victim to date of charter schooling’s worrisome turn to politically correct groupthink. Woke enough to declare that his life’s purpose is “addressing education inequalities,” he nevertheless dared to talk frankly about third-rail questions of educational rigor and excellence, and paid the price.
This past summer, on June 4, Wilson penned a blog post titled, “The promise of intellectual joy” that appeared on Ascend’s website. Wilson argued that “democratic” education must strive to “grant all students the knowledge and faculties of mind that had once only been afforded the elite.” He lamented that intellectual pursuit is today too often seen not as a democratic birthright, but as an elitist affectation.
Wilson fretted that values such as “objectivity” and “worship of the written word” had been dismissed as “damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture.” He said there was a “growing risk” that efforts to make schools more “diverse, equitable, and inclusive” could “be shamefully exploited to justify reduced intellectual expectations of students.” Schools must find ways to make clear that “intellectual pursuit” and “especially intellectual joy” are good for all students, of every race and background. If we fail to do that, Wilson argued, “The distinctly American project of equal opportunity will continue to be thwarted.”
One might find all this all to be anodyne enough. Yet, in the progressive-driven culture war that has consumed charter schooling, Wilson’s lofty sentiments were grounds for angry attacks. Soon after the post appeared, a group that labeled itself “Friends of Ascend” started a petition on Change.org that sought to “hold the CEO of Ascend Public Charter Schools accountable for white supremacist rhetoric.” The petition insisted that Wilson’s post contained “offensive and oppressive content that . . . propagates destructive messages about the community that Ascend serves.”
A few months after the petition surfaced, Ascend’s board reviewed Wilson’s “record,” and he was fired.
The petition writers worked hard to call out Wilson’s wrongthink. They took issue, for instance, with his assertion that, in the 1970s and 1980s, “civil rights activists were concerned that requiring students of color to undertake demanding academic work would discriminate against children already harmed by prejudicial treatment in other aspects of their lives.” They denounced him for offering “unfounded and inaccurate representations of civil rights history” that are “historically inaccurate and negate the work of civil rights leaders did [sic] to fight for a high-quality education for ALL students.” While Wilson’s characterization of the matter was probably too sweeping, its underlying sentiment is hard to argue with. Of course, some civil-rights leaders of the 1970s and 1980s in some venues thought just as Wilson claimed they did, and it was unremarkable for him to note that the civil-rights push in schooling was marked by compromises, uncertainty, and decisions that can today be second-guessed. These observations do not “negate” the work of civil-rights leaders; they merely acknowledge reality.
The attack on Wilson’s supposedly “white supremacist rhetoric” is particularly striking given his outspoken commitment to addressing civil-rights concerns in the past — specifically in the case of school discipline. When, last decade, the school-reform community evinced an unshakable certainty that strict discipline was a crucial element of school success, Ascend was right there. In recent years, as the consensus swiftly pivoted to an embrace of “restorative justice” and an insistence that strict discipline was misguided and racist, Ascend adjusted its policies accordingly. Wilson was ahead of the curve on this, observing in 2016 that Ascend had “moved sharply away from a zero tolerance discipline approach.” If anything, for good or ill, Wilson has been a leader of efforts to recalibrate school discipline in response to concerns about racial disparities. It’s simply untrue to suggest that Wilson has ever shown indifference to civil-rights concerns.
Wilson’s plight has been greeted with a remarkable, disconcerting silence in the larger charter-school world (broken only by one lonely response). While we have heard a number of whispered laments, almost no one has objected publicly, and it’s not clear why. After all, Wilson’s points were eminently defensible on their merits. What exactly did he do wrong? Influential scholars and pundits have indeed dismissed “objectivity” and “worship of the written word” as hallmarks of “white supremacy culture.” Wilson is right that efforts to promote inclusion and equity have indeed sometimes turned into excuses to lower expectations and reduce rigor. One can only surmise that Wilson’s real sin was to raise these uncomfortable issues at all.
More important, even if one stipulates that portions of Wilson’s high-minded essay were sure to spark dissent, the idea that such disagreement justifies censuring — much less firing — an accomplished school leader shows a frightening willingness to kowtow to the basest impulses of the mob. And that is a betrayal of fundamental principles. After all, inspiring energetic discussion of how schools can best serve their students isn’t just healthy — it’s a hallmark of quality schools and school leaders.
Charter schools lack the bureaucratic insulation of large, staid public-school systems. Charter-school leaders are more exposed and frequently more accessible to the communities they serve. This exposure can be a powerful force for good. But there’s also the question of whether it may yield a sector whose leaders are inclined to crumple in the face of concentrated pressure and social-media outrage. Will charter schools be willing or able to stand against the groupthink of the moment in future cases where bedrock educational principles are at stake? For a sector that has been defined by bold, innovative leadership, the answer will prove telling.
Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Hannah Warren is a research assistant at AEI.