By Henry Gannett-Bethell | December 31, 2020

Abolition is a political philosophy designed around envisioning a society where police and prisons are obsolete. Abolitionists engage in both the dismantling of systems like the carceral state, racial capitalism, and imperialism, and the larger project of “world-building” to create a more just society by utilizing preventative measures against violence and where justice can be achieved without imprisonment.[1] From an abolitionist perspective, no one is considered “disposable.” Abolitionists also recognize that removing a “disruptive” or “dangerous” person from a community is not a sufficient method of problem-solving.[2] An abolitionist framework can also be applied to, and is quite necessary for, education reform to both improve outcomes for students in primarily-Black, marginalized, urban communities, and to create a truly egalitarian society overall.

Since the beginning of public education in America, the purpose of schools has shifted from citizen-making to helping students get ahead in a market economy.[3] The charter school (or school choice) movement—which would define much of President Obama’s education policy—emerged in the 1990s, arguing that schools functioned better with more autonomy and that this autonomy should be provided through the market.[4] However, markets are inherently unequal and hierarchal.[5] The proliferation of charter schools and closing of neighborhood schools through programs like Arne Duncan’s “Renaissance 2010” destabilizes neighborhoods by displacing students and forcing them to transfer, often to other low performing schools.[6] School choice eviscerates the principles of participatory democracy and community building by transferring the responsibility of education from neighborhood schools—with the potential to be held accountable by community members—to privately operated, far away charters.  By closing neighborhood schools, choice policies label entire communities disposable, discounting their voice by moving their children to faraway schools and preventing families from impacting their children’s education. In addition, charter schools classify disabled students and English language learners as disposable by failing to provide adequate services for these already marginalized groups.[7] Some scholars instead suggest closing the opportunity gap in education by bussing marginalized Black students into high performing districts, which is proven to improve the testing outcomes of poor Black students.[8] However, this integrationist approach classifies the historically redlined and disinvested communities as disposable by sending kids away to socialize them within the framework of white cultural practices and norms. Both of these reformist methods are antithetical to building community and could hamper efforts to “make Black neighborhoods matter” by fragmenting close-knit communities.[9]

By stripping communities of neighborhood schools, via charter schools or bussing, reformers and politicians strip communities of what philosopher Henri Lefebvre called the “right to the city,” which is the right to engage in the democracy of cities, to make the city (or community) one wants to live in, to transform one’s self as well as the community one lives in.[10] To take away the “right to the city” is to strip a community of its humanity. By preventing a community from shaping their schools—which in turn shape the future of their communities—the choice and integrationist models of reform shift the “right to the city” to privately operated charter schools or into the hands of white and suburban schools, respectively. There are rich histories of struggle and beauty in even the most disinvested neighborhoods; it would be wrong to strip these communities of the self-determination that neighborhood schools provide.

Abolition, unlike charter schools and bussing, works to strengthen neighborhoods through community building and bringing people together using principles of participatory democracy in order to “world-build.”[11] An abolitionist wave of education reform would empower communities by increasing participatory democracy (e.g. local school councils, elected school board representatives, community school type wraparound services, etc.) to help stitch together the social fabric of disinvested communities. Democratic methods could be used to design community-specific services and culturally-relevant curriculums. As the community school model is implemented the school can become a hub and source of pride for historically disinvested and fragmented neighborhoods. While choice and integration reforms accept inequality as a given, abolitionist education reform could center around egalitarianism by guaranteeing accessible, community-specific, and effective schools that meet the academic, psychological, and physical needs of every student. Abolitionist educational reform would self-sustain as the purpose of schools shifts from market preparation to creating engaged citizens who are empowered to continue the project of world-building in an egalitarian image. When students are no longer treated as disposable and a spirited school culture emerges, I theorize that school violence and community violence will decrease because students feel supported in their hopes and dreams. Teachers and administrators would play an important role by engaging with students outside of the classroom at sports games, concerts, and other events where students explore their passions. This engagement would further diminish the sense of disposability and aid in the process of citizen-building.

Such large-scale reforms would require significant investments. Reparations are an important pillar of abolitionist thought.[12] Abolitionist education reform would use the concept of reparations to increase funding for neighborhood schools and economically exploited persons in historically redlined neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty. Past education reform movements have failed in engaging marginalized communities, but through the emphasis on world-building, abolitionists have the chance to reshape the history of education reform by sourcing solutions from those most affected. It is crucial to the health of neighborhoods and the potential of ridding our communities from the violence of the carceral state that abolitionists adopt the project of education reform. It is a project that presents an ideal beginning to the world-building needed to make the carceral state and other systems of state violence obsolete.


[1] Allegra M. McLeod, “Envisioning Abolition Democracy,” Harvard Law Review, 132, (2019): 1617-1618.

[2] Reina Gosset and Dean Spade, “No One is Disposable: Everyday Practices of Prison Abolition,” Barnard Center for Research on Women, Barnard, February 7, 2014,

[3] Labaree, David F., Someone has to fail: the Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 40.

[4] Labaree, 33-34; Richard Mora and Mary Christianakis, “Charter Schools, Market Capitalism, and Obama’s Neo-liberal Agenda,” Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education 4, no. 1, (2011): 93.

[5] K.J. Saltman, “Schooling in Disaster Capitalism: How the Political Right is Using Disaster to Privatise Public Schooling,” Teaching Education Quarterly 34, no. 2, (2007): 141.

[6] Mora and Christianakis, 95-97.

[7] Mora and Christianakis, 99-100.

[8] Richard Rothstein, “Why our Schools are Segregated,” Educational Leadership 70, no. 8, (2013); Nikole Hannah-Jones, “School Segregation, the Continuing Tragedy of Ferguson,” ProPublica, December 19, 2014,

[9] Brown, Lawrence, “Make Black Neighborhoods Matter,” Fix the City, Urbanite Baltimore, 2015,

[10] Lipman, Pauline, The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City (New York City: Routledge, 2011), 5.

[11] McLeod, 1619.

[12] McLeod, 1615.

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