Strange Bedfellows: Race, Rights, and the Privatization of Education Reform, 1954 to 1994
Erica Sterling

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



Harvard University

Primary Discipline

My dissertation asks, how did race, philanthropy, and education law and policy intersect to produce uneven outcomes for American school children? From 1954 to 1994, the dissertation evaluates: 1) the long history of charter school policies; 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—black communities, lawmakers, and philanthropists—in support of reform ultimately emerged. The dissertation makes two contributions to 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 charter school movement and school choice among federal actors in the 1960s. Second, the dissertation 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, this study recovers a more nuanced narrative of desegregation politics beyond the south; the ideological antecedents to charter schools rose to prominence as a solution to education inequity in urban locales, charting the course of K-12 schooling for decades to come.
About Erica Sterling
Erica Sterling is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the history of education law and policy, and twentieth-century U.S. urban and philanthropic history. Her dissertation traces the evolution of federal school choice policies, illustrating how philanthropists, federal bureaucrats, and community organizers sought to reform K-12 public schools in the midst of Cold War-fueled education research and development. At Harvard, Erica is a Presidential Scholar and has worked as a teaching fellow for numerous courses on the history of race and American politics. Her work has been supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library, the Warren Center for Studies in American History, and more. Erica holds a B.A. in History and Psychology from Emory University.

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