Power and Privilege in Education Policy

Making the Case for Critical Theory as a Theoretical Framework for a Liberatory Policy Agenda

Andre ChenFeng In 1963, Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” 

As a first-time attendee to the AACTE’s Holmes Policy Institute, I was met with theory, practice, and a new appreciation for civic engagement. My key takeaway from the Holmes Policy Short Course was for scholars of color to bridge education policy with critical praxis[1]. In other words, we are to unapologetically interrogate the role of white supremacy and whiteness in our education policies with our dissertation research questions. 

Zoom meetingDuring the course, Weade James, AACTE director of development and research, reminded the Holmes Scholars that “part of being an effective education leader is being an active participant in the public policymaking process.” I was inspired by her leadership and vision to create the Holmes Policy Short Course for scholars of color—a space to train and equip advocates for education policy to navigate white supremacy in our political institutions.

Jane West shared her years of expertise working in Washington, DC and her forthcoming framework for policy engagement: The 4 Ps: people, process, politics, and policy. The 4 Ps framework offered the Holmes Scholars an analytical tool to unpack how policy happens on Capitol Hill and what West calls the process of “parting the curtains.” 

Congressional Education & Labor Committee member Lakeisha Steele gave us a glimpse of what a day in a staffer’s life looks like. As a staffer of color, she highlighted a new study that found only 11% of top aides influencing policy and public messaging for Senators on the Hill are Black, Indigenous, or people of color (Brenson, 2020 as cited in Fandos 2020).

At the end of the policy course, I found myself wondering about a fifth p—for power. Critical theory can be a theoretical framework to help us ask questions about power. “Who has it? How did they get it? What are they doing with it? How might things be otherwise” (Hinchey, 2010, p. 17). This wondering led me to consider two questions that I want to explore further: 1) What role does power play in education policy? 2)What would the field education look like if more AACTE members (e.g., doctoral students, faculty, and administrators) became more keenly aware of how power operates on the Hill?

I hope more will join us at next year’s AACTE Holmes Policy Short Course as we explore these questions and more. Together, we will demand a liberatory policy agenda that is systemic, intergenerational, and transformative. In 2020, where the streets are crying out for Black liberation, it is time for us to co-create a new table for Black, Indigenous, and people of color to sit.

Andre ChenFeng is an advocate for liberation-based healing in education. He is a Ph.D. student at Claremont Graduate University, with a focus on integrating contemplative practices and critical theories in higher education, specifically, around the critical healing of teacher educators of color. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Claremont Graduate University in the Teacher Education Program. Andre received his B.A and M.Ed. from UCLA. He taught 7th and 8th-grade mathematics for eight years at the UCLA Community School in Los Angeles.

[1] Critical praxis: “Ernest Morrell and Jeff Duncan-Andrade acknowledge that critical praxis in the classroom involves a continuous, self-reflective cycle between theory and action as follows: (a) identifying a problem, (b) researching the problem, (c) developing a collective plan of action to address that problem, (d) implementing the collective plan of action, and (e) evaluating the action and assessing its efficacy in reexamining the state of the problem. Thus, critical praxis involves a constant path of evaluating thought with action, theory with practice, in the effort to gain a higher consciousness for positive change upon the world.” (McLaren, Ryoo, Crawford, & Moreno, 2010, p. 151).



Brenson, LS. (2020). Racial diversity among top staff in senate personal offices.

Fandos, N. (2020, August 21). Senators Lead an Increasingly Diverse Nation. Their Top Aides Are Mostly White.

McLaren, Peter L. and Jean Jinsun Ryoo, Jenifer Crawford, Dianna Moreno. “Critical Praxis,” in Encyclopedia of Curriculum Studies, ed. Craig Kridel, 51. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2010.



“dismantlingRacism 2016 Workbook,” dismantlingRacism.org, 2016, https://resourcegen- eration.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/2016-dRworks-workbook.pdf.