Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education, and a New Social Movement

reviewed by Gloria Ladson-Billings — September 30, 2005

Title: Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education, and a New Social Movement
Author(s): Jean Anyon
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415950996, Pages: 240, Year: 2005

No one wants to hear that they are working in vain. Truly no American wants to hear that they are working in vain since one of the salient qualities of American culture is getting things done. Americans pride themselves on their efficiency and “can do” spirit. Thus, Jean Anyon’s Radical Possibilities is unsettling in its claim that urban education reform is doomed to failure. This does not sit well with teachers, administrators, parents, community members, education researchers, or the general public. After all, the public has invested billions of dollars in education, and it is not unreasonable to expect something for that investment. Unlike conservative arguments about the folly of education spending, Anyon places the foci of educational problems where they rightly belong—the macroeconomic and sociopolitical contexts that create policies that make it virtually impossible to improve schools in poor and low-income communities.

Anyon argues that two major forces—federal policies and metropolitan inequities—are the primary contributors to the conditions that plague public schools. This assertion challenges commonly held beliefs that the reason urban schools are failing is because the children are poor, the parents do not care, the teachers are ill prepared, and the funding is too meager. For Anyon, “macroeconomic mandates continually trump urban education and school reform” (p. 2). Thus, education reformers find themselves like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder uphill.

Anyon points out that national policies that may seem far from the classroom have devastating impacts on the quality of students’ (and their families’) lives. For example, policies, that maintain an exceedingly low minimum wage, force people to live in poverty or to work so much that the quality of their family life is severely compromised. This point is reinforced in the work of sociologist, Harriet Presser (2003) who argues the demand for round the clock goods and services requires a 24 hour, 7 days a week workforce. Of course those who work in the late night, weekend economy tend to be poor, working class, and female. They staff supermarkets, convenience stores, gas stations, and big box discount stores; and the schedules they work mean that they cannot easily fit into the parent involvement, parent support mode typical of middle-class parents. Family life in these households is less predictable and less likely to involve evening dinners together and parent supervised homework sessions.

In chapter 3, “Taxing Rich and Poor,” Anyon documents how the tax rate, tax policies, and the concentration of wealth limit the movement of large groups of people into the middle class. This section of the book details the specific ways that tax cuts for the wealthiest members of the society wreak havoc on the social welfare of the poorest members. But, the problems with taxes and wealth inequality are not limited to individuals. Federal policies favorable to corporations place the interests of the poor far below those of big business. Anyon specifically lists companies like Microsoft, General Electric, Colgate Palmolive, and IBM that paid little or no taxes despite huge earnings. According to Anyon, “It is certainly fair to say that corporate America does not contribute to the U. S. federal, state, or local public expenses commensurate with its ability to pay. This deprives governments at all levels of funds with which to provide for the public good” (p. 54).

Issues of unfair tax policies, economic disparity, and wealth concentration regularly find their way into our consciousness. However, Anyon’s section on metropolitan inequalities provides a fresh lens on the problems that schools experience. Rather than characterize the nation by its municipalities, Anyon points out that we are a nation of regions. More than 80 % of Americans live in a metropolitan region, and almost half of the nation’s population lives in the 25 largest metro regions. These regions take in cities and several rings of suburbs. The central cities are the most stressed because they are becoming increasingly poor. Not surprisingly, the central cities are home to communities of color—Blacks, Latinos, and recent immigrants. Unfortunately, good paying jobs, decent and affordable housing, and reliable public transportation elude the central city. The first ring suburbs are becoming increasingly diverse with some communities of color migrating just outside the city. These inner suburbs mimic urban centers to the extent that they are home to more working class and poor families. Anyon also identifies the interrelationship between urban and suburban communities.  For example, in some urban communities residents contend with substandard and low performing schools while their suburban counterparts have excellent high performing schools. At first glance one might argue the fact that suburban residents pay higher taxes (based on their property tax assessments) which entitles them to better schools; but it is not unusual for suburban schools to generate a sizeable element of their revenues from commercial taxes such as retail taxes. Again one might argue that if the suburban residents are willing to pay higher sales taxes, then they are entitled to more revenue. However, the situation is typically more complicated. Urban communities have fewer quality retail outlets and regularly do their shopping in suburban malls. Thus, urban residents pay taxes in the city for their own schools; and then when they shop in the suburbs, they pay additional taxes that go to support suburban schools. They are doubly taxed and minimally educated.

The message of Radical Possibilities is not all hopeless. Anyon believes in good old-fashioned organizing as a strategy for reversing the downward spiral of urban/metropolitan educational achievement. People like Myles Horton, Sol Alinsky, and Septima Clark understood the power of ordinary people coming together to create change in their communities. Similarly, neophyte U. S. Senator Barack Obama, in his memoir, Dreams From My father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (2004), describes the challenges and rewards of community organizing. This work is not for the faint of heart. It requires people who have a high tolerance for setbacks and defeats. However, the victories, no matter how infrequent, can be life changing. The Montgomery bus boycott, the Oceanside–Brownsville school movement, and the Freedom Summer, all are examples of how community organizing can result in positive and powerful social change.


I concluded this review at the time of the horrific events following Hurricane Katrina in the gulf coast region of the United States. While the hurricane itself nearly obliterated Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi, and caused flooding in parts of Mobile, Alabama, and its surrounding areas, it is not the natural occurrence that caused our shock and dismay. It was the fact that the lifelong neglect of the New Orleans levee system caused a major metropolitan area to disappear under water. It was the fact that every level of government—city, state, and federal—failed the most vulnerable citizens. The images that permeated the televisions and newspapers were those of the poor, the elderly, the young, the infirm, and Blacks. They were left to fend for themselves in a city that was drowning. They had no food, no clean water, no transportation, and no help. Hundreds were stranded on their rooftops as the filthy water from Lake Ponchatrain rose. The city rounded up these people and placed them in an ill-equipped sports arena that could not accommodate them. Within a few days lawlessness prevailed both inside the arena and in the streets of the city. At the same time this was occurring the “war president” was enjoying the last few days of his 5-week vacation. The federal agency charged with protecting the nation from terrorist attacks seemed paralyzed in the face of a natural disaster that had been predicted years ago.

The relevance of the Hurricane Katrina fiasco to the Anyon book is that it is the quintessential example of how larger forces and policy decisions override the micro-level decisions that we may make. In the instance of the hurricane, some city level offices had prepared some evacuation scenarios. But, their preparation could not meet the needs of an entire city—40 % of whom live below the poverty line—that was unable to secure transportation to evacuate or to find adequate lodging. New Orleans residents know they live below sea level. They know they live in an area susceptible to hurricanes. But, they were led to believe that the levees that could protect the city from flooding would hold. The macro-level decisions that failed to fund the fortification of the levees left them virtually porous once the hurricane hit. It did not matter which reforms were taking place within the city, once the levees were breached the city was flooded.  The breached levees in urban/metropolitan schools—the lack of mass transportation, the lack of jobs that pay a living wage, the concentration of poverty, and the depletion of the tax base—all contribute to the “flooding” of urban schools. They are flooded with students with greater education needs and fewer resources and, like their counterparts in New Orleans, there is no viable evacuation plan. They suffer the horror of draconian federal regulations and, again, like the victims of Hurricane Katrina, find they may have no home to which they can return,


Obama, B. (2004). Dreams from my father: A story of race and inheritance. New York: Crown Publishing Group.

Presser, H. (2003). Working in a 24/7 economy: Challenges for American families. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.


To Rich Gibson's Home Page