Educational Justice Can’t Wait
Q&A with Denise Forte, Senior Vice President, Partnerships and Engagement
Ed Trust is thrilled to welcome Denise Forte as senior vice president, Partnerships and Engagement. Most recently, she served as director of public affairs and senior fellow at The Century Foundation. A veteran of Capitol Hill, Denise is also the former staff director for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce (Minority), led by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA). She also served in the Obama administration at the U.S. Department of Education in the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development. Get to know her a little better.
Why are you passionate about education and social justice?
My family, in particular. My father was in the military; he grew up poor on a farm in Texas. My mother, from New England, was a single mother with two young kids. I saw how they both committed their life to service in a variety of ways and wanted to follow in those footsteps. I think when it comes to education, there’s probably no greater call to service.
And as a mom to two school-aged boys, you probably see things through a different lens now.
Absolutely. As a parent, it’s not just a different lens, it has been eye-opening on so many fronts that parent engagement matters, that diverse teachers matter, and particularly with Black boys, challenging them in non-traditional ways. Fortunately, we’ve landed in a school that provides that.
Throughout your career, you’ve been recognized as a leader in education and family policy. How will your experience manifest itself at Ed Trust?
Hopefully, I can bring my experience politically, legislatively, and policy-wise to really deliver on what our mission is — across the policy spans of higher education and P-12. We need serious and cohesive leadership when it comes to equity issues on the Hill and across the country, and Ed Trust has been at the center of that. So my goal is to continue that, amplifying it where necessary, helping to build strong coalitions, but making sure that whatever the policy goal is, that children of color and low-income children are respected, and that they will get the resources they need.
What will be your priorities in this role?
It’s a little bit of everything. I’m fully enthralled with the state work that’s going on and the partnership work. I think now that ESSA has gone back to the states, we can make sure that equity is at their fingertips — giving them the communications tools, organizing tools, and policy tools. We’ve also got multiple fronts legislatively that I know we want to tackle. We want to be clear and strategic on HEA and Second Chance Pell. And you never know? Some of the work that John King did at the U.S. Department of Education around school integration is still relevant. So Ed Trust will continue to press forward on that.
What do you think is the most pressing issue facing education right now?
Resource equity. I don’t know if I want to call it that. But really achieving equity when it comes to resources, when it comes to teachers, when it comes to racial equity. How are we going to deliver on what is needed for low-income kids and kids of color? And make sure that not only can they participate in a world-class education system, but that they are getting a world-class system.
Do you think it’s possible to move the needle on that?
I hope so. You see it happen in small ways. I’ve been a part of some big educational debates, where I think we overshot in places, and we had unintended consequences in other places. But we’ve been able to make a difference in some pretty important places. For example, the disaggregation of data in No Child Left Behind is one of the most critical, mind-shifting demonstrations of how policy can play out on the ground and have significant implications. I think some communities, especially a lot of poor black communities, they were like, yeah, we know there’s a problem. We don’t need the test to show that. But the problem was that people in power didn’t know it. Now that you have the data in front of your face, it’s hard to ignore.
You’ve been fighting for equitable education policy for decades. What frustrates you about this work? What keeps you hopeful?
The most frustrating thing is that while there is so much urgency, it all moves so slowly. Policy development, policy solutions, the will to make things happen, that moves very slowly. I think part of that, in some instances, is the lack of political will to make things happen. That’s very frustrating. When you think back to the strategies in the past and the failed reforms — we’re talking 30, 50 years of reform — where we’ve had very incremental success. When it comes to losing a generation of kids, and there are generations already that have complicated issues, complicated histories, and systemic biases, the lack of urgency only compounds those problems.
But what I’m hopeful about is there are actually more and more people, young people in particular, who are taking up the cause, and I’m excited about that. Any time I get to talk to young people about public service, about education policy, I always get jazzed. If I can touch one person, get them as excited as I am about the work, then it’s not all in vain. The next generation doesn’t sit down for much. The things that both of my kids say or questions that they ask, are things that never crossed my mind at their age. It’s a sign of hope.
What made you want to work for Ed Trust?
I cannot think of a better team of leaders than what we have at Ed Trust — committed leaders who feel the sense of urgency that I do. That’s a big pull for me. Ed Trust is mission driven. We know what we’re about. And we know the steps we’re going to have to take to make it happen. That’s good for kids to have an organization that is a national leader that is going to do our best every day to bring about equity for kids. I want to be a part of it. I’m eager to dive in. Everything I’ve done in the past has led me to this. It is an opportunity to see the policies that I’ve worked on make sure that they have the equity voice in there, as well as forge some new ground with a sense of urgency.