Erica Sterling

Erica Sterling

Ph.D. Candidate in History
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Erica studies the role of race in the privatization of education reform from 1954 to 1994. Her dissertation evaluates: 1) the long history of charter school policies largely overlooked because of “model” and “experimental” school provisions that seemed secondary to larger discussions of court-ordered desegregation; 2) the consequences of philanthropy’s influence; 3) and the ways in which the same reform structures could be used for very different ends, thus explaining how odd coalitions in support of reform ultimately emerged. The dissertation makes two interventions in existing scholarship: First, it reveals how the combined forces of the civil rights movement and the Cold War propelled an enduring shift in how federal bureaucrats, philanthropists, and education researchers tinkered with reforms for urban schools left relatively untouched by desegregation. In doing so, the project intervenes in the history of education by establishing the origins of the modern-day charter school movement and school choice among federal actors in the 1960s – before 1980s backlash to public education. Second, the dissertation illuminates how philanthropy helped curate a privatized system of K-12 education. The project pinpoints philanthropy as an important yet under-examined actor in civil rights, legal, and education histories, arguing philanthropy’s autonomy and deep pockets – before the turn of the twenty-first century – made experimentation possible. Relying on extensive archival research, the project recovers a more nuanced narrative of federal desegregation politics in which the ideological antecedents to charter schools rose to prominence as a solution to education inequity, charting the course of K-12 schooling for decades to come.

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