Innovating (In)equality: Philanthropy, Federal Policy, and the Racial Politics of K-12 Education, 1954 to 1994
Erica Sterling

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of Virginia

Primary Discipline

The manuscript interrogates how “innovation” became a proxy for equitable education policy from 1954 to 1994. The book reveals how the combined forces of the civil rights movement and the Cold War facilitated how federal bureaucrats, philanthropists, and education researchers theorized and developed non-judicial alternatives for large city school systems, like Washington, DC, that remained untouched by desegregation. But what began as a thought experiment in the 1960s to achieve choice-driven, voluntary desegregation and to protect the vitality of American cities began to crumble by the early 1970s. The prerogatives of Black communities, presidential administrations, and the Ford Foundation shifted to no longer view innovation and the choices it could produce as a mechanism for desegregation. For the remainder of the 1980s and 1990s, the national backlash to public education captivated the country, allowing school choice to reemerge as a centerpiece of federal education reform efforts. By starting in the 1960s, the manuscript illuminates the long history of school choice rhetoric and policies, explaining how they both challenged and maintained inequity, and how an eclectic mix of stakeholders came to dominate the contemporary education reform landscape.
About Erica Sterling
Sterling, Erica
Erica Sterling is an incoming Assistant Professor in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia. Before joining the faculty, Dr. Sterling was a Rising Scholars Postdoctoral Fellow at UVA, where she taught undergraduate courses on historical methods and Black education in the US. Her research focuses on local and federal education policy and politics, philanthropy, and Black community organizing in the latter half of the twentieth century. Dr. Sterling’s forthcoming book project aims to historicize the contemporary education reform movement, examining how k-12 reformers' reliance on innovative reforms over time has perpetuated inequity. Her work has been supported by multiple entities, including the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Dissertation Completion Fellowship (2021). A native Californian with Jamaican roots, Dr. Sterling earned her BA in history and psychology from Emory University, and her PhD in history from Harvard University.

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