A Cautionary Tale of Charter School Right-Think

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Steven Wilson would seem to be the very model of a thoughtful, progressive 21st century education reformer. He’s also a cautionary tale. In 2007, after more than a decade working in charter schools, writing about them, and teaching about them at Harvard, he opened the first Ascend charter school in Brooklyn. Today, the Ascend network consists of 15 schools, serving 5,000 predominantly low-income and minority children in New York City. Ascend’s record is stellar, with achievement gaps closing and proficiency standards met, and this pedagogic magic is worked in exceptionally nice facilities, not the shared buildings used by so many Gotham charters. Wilson and company have done all this without big philanthropy, without profiteering, and without scandal.

A hard-driving executive who built a strong team, Wilson’s annual performance reviews yielded kudos year after year. Driven by high standards for staff and students alike, it must be said that he paid more attention to educating kids than to contemporary notions of diversity, inclusion and sensitivity. He has no appetite for pandering but is politically and socially very liberal. He was, for instance, an early adopter of “restorative justice,” a progressive approach to school discipline intended to be less punitive while addressing concerns about racial bias (but which has raised some concerns about the consequences for school orderliness and safety).

Wilson is also a serious education thinker who sees much today that doesn’t meet his standards. That’s what got him in trouble. Last June, he posted an extensive, historically-themed essay on the Ascend website titled “The Promise of Intellectual Joy.” Its central point was that “democratic” education must strive to “grant all students the knowledge and faculties of mind that had once only been afforded the elite.”

Wilson lamented the “growing risk” that efforts to make schools more “diverse, equitable, and inclusive” could “be shamefully exploited to justify reduced intellectual expectations.” He declared that schools must make clear that “intellectual pursuit” and “intellectual joy” are good for students of every race and background, or else, “The distinctly American project of equal opportunity will continue to be thwarted.”

Wilson also second-guessed some compromises that civil rights leaders — and many educators — had made in pursuing equality. He noted that, in the 1970s and 1980s, “[A]ctivists 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.”  

Three days after his blog was posted, an aggrieved Ascend employee launched a petition on Change.Org calling for Wilson’s head, sparking the formation of an anti-Wilson group that styled itself “Friends of Ascend.” The petition sought to “hold [Wilson] accountable for white supremacist rhetoric” and charged his essay with containing “offensive and oppressive content” that “propagates destructive messages about the community that Ascend serves.” Wilson was denounced for “unfounded and inaccurate representations of civil rights history” that “negate the work of civil rights leaders did [sic] to fight for a high-quality education for ALL students.”

The blog was swiftly removed. In its stead, Wilson posted an “I’m going to learn from this” note, and separately apologized to the angry staffer. The Ascend board engaged an independent review of the situation, as Wilson bent over backward to convey his regret to the school team — and recused himself from day-to-day operations. The external review found no support for the charges made by “Friends of Ascend,” but did surface some staff discontent with his management style.

This led to a board plan, agreed to by Wilson, for a six month “improvement plan” during which he would resume his CEO duties while addressing management-related issues. But a few senior staffers indicated they weren’t satisfied with the plan. Confusion ensued over how to proceed, with several board members resigning to protest the anti-Wilson attitude of other members. Key executives threatened to quit if he didn’t return but, within a few weeks, Wilson was abruptly notified that he was being fired. At no point was he permitted to meet either with the board or his “accusers.”

This was of course outrageous. It took aggressive, intentional misreading to turn a paean to equal opportunity into something disturbing. The worst that might fairly be said is that Wilson’s essay was outspoken, perhaps too sweeping in its historical judgments, and more personally forceful than the emollient nothingness that’s customary from the head of a large organization.

The result is a tale of three very bad things, and an important opportunity missed.

First, the leadership team of a much-needed network of effective schools, by conducting itself miserably, sorely weakened the team that had made the schools successful. Second, a first-rate education leader had his career upended and reputation besmirched by the star-chamber tactics of an inept and craven board. Third, a dreadful example was set for students, staffers and education leaders across the land: if you don’t drink today’s foul Kool-aid of racial right-think, you best keep your mouth shut — or find another line of work. 

The missed opportunity was to turn the entire sequence into a learning opportunity and example of restorative justice in action, emphasizing openness to divergent opinions, willingness to engage in thoughtful deliberation about crucial questions, and commitment to civility and growth in a contentious time.

Wilson will survive. Indeed, he is already moving to reboot his career and turn this painful episode into the learning opportunity that was missed. And Ascend will be OK, as influential outsiders reconstruct its board and leadership, in a commitment to the children and communities these schools have served so well. Indeed, the board has been revamped, with the addition of five new board members, and supporters are working hard to help the network regain its footing.

But while the immediate wounds may heal, scars will remain. More significantly, Wilson’s saga is a stark warning sign. It raises the question of whether big-city school reformers — liberals almost all — who have prided themselves on boldness, courage, and speaking truth to power will be willing or able to stand fast against intolerance and bullying when those threats emanate from the reaches of the far left. The early signs aren’t good.

Chester E. Finn is president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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