Critical tensions in educational policy and practice: Lead the Change interview with Davíd G. Martínez

In this month’s Lead the Change interview Davíd G. Martínez highlights challenges and opportunities for students and educators to work toward fostering systemic equity in schools. Martinez is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policies at the College of Education of the University of South Carolina where he focuses on connecting policy knowledge and praxis through multi-method inquiry. The LtC series is produced by Alex Lamb and colleagues from the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website.

Lead the Change: The 2023 AERA theme is “Interrogating Consequential Education Research in Pursuit of Truth” and charges researchers and practitioners with creating and using education research to disrupt institutionalized forms of discrimination. The call urges scholars to challenge traditional methods of inquiry in order to create increasingly useful, responsive, and equity-oriented research that can be used by schools to develop informed policies and practices to better support students. What specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?

Davíd G. Martínez: Educators, practitioners, and scholars often work together to ameliorate the challenges in education, (e.g, lack of sufficient school funding, educator and leadership burnout and churn, anti-Blackness, and lack of cultural context) (Baker et al., 2021; DeMatthews et al., 2022; Martínez & Vasquez-Heilig, 2022; Watson & Baxley, 2021). Change is occurring, and all stakeholders should be hopeful, but transformation is slow in public schools. At times, seemingly indifferent political regimes exacerbate pre-existing challenges (Tran et al., 2022). Schools are extremely intricate organizations teeming with energy and nuanced in so many ways, and hardworking partners in practice (i.e., students, teachers, administrators) work tirelessly to maintain schools despite these challenges.

The membership of AERA is a community of thought-provoking individuals who care deeply about education, kids, teachers, leaders, parents, and each other. AERA’s 2023 theme focused on systemic inequity continues to guide this focus through an intellectual and spiritual community of Educational Change scholars. The 2023 AERA theme reminds scholars that to support education is an act of daring and an act of strength. To realize this power, scholars must act in solidarity with practitioners. AERA urges its members to critically consider the potential for supporting equitable educational praxis through research that directly informs policy and practice. The 2023 AERA theme is meaningful because it asks scholars as individuals in unique positions of power to acutely recognize our unfinished-ness, recognize our partners in practice, and recognize how we can best support their work.

So, what can the AERA community do? Many of AERA’s members are already engaged in positive practices that build community. Many scholars collaborate with partners in practice to understand the intricacies of education. From my purview, many of AERA’s members listen to practitioners and do so intently. We seek partners in practice who can support our working knowledge of students, classrooms, schools, and districts, and the daily challenges they face. Many of us seek this knowledge to understand how we can best situate our work so it is practical and useful. The 2023 AERA theme is a positive way to acknowledge that our work is not done and to challenge our academic community to continue cultivating the solidarity we require to create positive change in schools.

LtC: In your work, you use legal, policy, and finance frameworks to examine funding inequity and its dire consequences for minoritized school districts, arguing that poverty and racism are systemic issues to be addressed as such. What are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?  

DM: In my research, I seek to provoke and create purposeful, critical tension. From my perspective, I want to make explicit that historical policy and law which persecuted people of color, or sanctioned our murder, lead to modern socio-economic constraints (Bell, 2004; Martínez & Vasquez-Heilig, 2022; O’Connell, 2012). To understand modern socio-economic constraints, we must acknowledge the oppression of minoritized peoples, and the advent of laws entrenched in white supremacy that prevented minoritized people from accumulating wealth (Osworth, 2022; Rothstein, 2017). This system of oppression still exists and a cursory, even anecdotal, assessment of schools as a microcosm of this reality requires our consideration.

For instance, one of the major sources of funding for districts/schools are local property tax levies (Green, 2021; Martínez, 2021). Those districts with higher community wealth, and greater commerce, then leverage this community wealth through levies to fund their schools (Kelly, 2020; Knight, 2017). Often the districts with the most severe school funding and resource disparity are districts serving higher proportions of Indigenous, Black, and LatinX students (Baker et al., 2020; Kelly & Maselli, 2022). This then envelopes how I engage in my own research.

In my research, it is important to center the historical context of modern policy. How does policy extend from history and impact communities here and now? For instance, in Martínez et al. (2019) we wanted to understand school finance disparity in the current policy landscape of Arizona and the historical treatment of Indigenous Peoples. This includes the abject degradation of Indigenous sovereignty and policies that have historically, and continue to, impede sovereignty. From my purview, it is important to think about the history of the phenomena we are studying, and how this can help us illuminate the disparities in school funding we found in real time.

“Historical policy and law which persecuted people of color, or sanctioned our murder, lead to modern socio-economic constraints.”

Another lesson I have learned is to understand the phenomena I am interested in from the purview of practice. Before I engage in research, I go out and seek knowledge and guidance from partners in practice. There are many great ideas for research, but our partners in practice who operate our schools are inundated with challenges they must address. Before putting code to program, I’ll often take a little time to ask questions to understand my phenomena of interest from this practitioner perspective. I’ll then sit and think about why school finance disparity persists and whom the disparity targets. Grounding myself in this knowledge helps me a great deal to understand the phenomena I’m studying.

LtC: In your recent work you argue that persistent school finance disparity matters for BIPOC communities, is an equity issue, and must be ameliorated as civil right. How might your findings help scholars and practitioners imagine and implement changes to school finance policy and practice more effectively?

DM: Nationally, schools are about much more than learning. For example, public schools/districts across this country are often one of the largest employers in the geographical area (Jenkins, 2007; Tieken & Williams, 2021). Many public schools/districts across this country offer students public transportation services to and from school, especially in areas with no other public transportation (Buehler, 2009; Phillips et al., 2007; Zhang & Du, 2022). Every public school/district across this country provides full-service meals twice a day, not including mid-day or after school snacks. Many public schools/districts offer healthcare services, and at the very least every school/district offers in-house medical personnel (i.e., nurse).

“Society does not need another Theranos, we do need schools, and to applaud one, and denigrate the other, is a national failure.”

Many, but unfortunately not all, provide temperature-controlled workspaces, working plumbing, and fresh clean drinkable water. Public schools/districts provide entertainment and cultural enrichment (i.e., recitals, theater, arts, live music; cultural celebrations). Public schools/districts provide large scale organized athletic events. Public schools/districts provide mental-health counseling. Public schools/districts provide skills training as part of the curriculum and often as a secondary duty (e.g., photography club, car club, coding club, game club, math club). Many public schools/districts across the country provide post-graduation counseling including test-preparation to support students’ long term educational goals. Most of all, every public school/district across the country provides content, curriculum, and pedagogical experts who have trained to support our kids’ learning. Oh, and we can’t forget the Chief Executive management that keeps the entire organization working as smoothly as possible every day, helping our communities flourish.

Schools/districts provide a high level of service and forcing them to operate with sparse funding for all the services they provide is a tragedy. Billions of dollars flow to start-ups annually, yet school leaders are forced to operate their schools with meager funding increases. I’ll be clear, society does not need another Theranos, we do need schools, and to applaud one, and denigrate the other, is a national failure. To open the faucet of funding to one, while starving the other is a failure of national and state policy. Hopefully, my work in some small way supports discourse about the complications of funding, how we direct funding to schools, which students are served at the highest level, and which are not.

LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?

DM: Work directly with practitioners and grass roots advocates/activists! I cannot overstate this enough. We must, as a research community, from a certain position of power, value our partners in practice and our educational community to make certain we are supporting schools in meaningful, practical ways. We must think of how we can go beyond publication, or partnerships to obtain grant funding that supports our career. What practical things are we doing, and what can we do every day?

I admire those scholars who’ve run for school board, or get involved in their children’s schools, or engage in areas outside of their research agenda. I admire those scholars who build pipeline programs for students to access higher education, or support services. I admire those scholars who build coalitions to ameliorate oppressive policy agendas. I think these are practical ways many of us can help support our schools. Many of us are engaged, and it is inspiring to see my peers so committed.

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?

DM: I think the field of school finance continuing to focus on disparities in funding and resources as a function of racism, white supremacy, and segregation is exciting. Thus far, I have exclusively focused on this area. I recently published a paper (Martínez & Spikes, 2021) that examined school finance disparity through a critical policy lens. We sought to understand how Arizona funded its English Learners and found that, by and large, the higher the proportion of English Learners in a district, the less English Learner targeted funding. Baker et al. (2020) recently published a paper examining the disparities between high proportion LatinX districts, and low proportion LatinX districts. The authors found that as the share of LatinX students increases, per pupil spending and revenue decrease. This type of research focuses on much more than socio-economic status and elicits dialogue about the historical nuances of racism that impede economic mobility, and thus educational opportunities. Expounding this type of research can inform policy, and practical solutions, to equitably fund schools that educate our Indigenous, Black, and LatinX students.

I am excited to read work that focuses on policy coalitions and the strength of communities to inform the political and educational landscape for all students. Coalitions cultivate political resistance to ameliorate the status-quo (Tran et al., 2022; Weiss & McGuinn, 2017). There is so much potential then to continuing supporting grassroots organizations engaged in coalition with educational advocates/activists to inform policy agendas.

I am excited about the possibilities of expanding our ontology of education and schools. What phenomena will scholars study? What policy or practice decisions will scholars support through research? How will scholars ensure that partners in practice are practically supported through scholarship? How will scholars use research to resist educational oppression and persecution? Is there space for visceral resistance? I am excited to see how we continue to confront white supremacy and fight the encouragement of fascism through research and scholarship in the United States of America.

“My excitement for the future is grounded in Educators’ power to resist oppressive policy through praxis and scholarship.”

MacLean’s (2017) book Democracy in Chains, describes an historical assault on democratic participation by the “Radical Right” that includes controlling the policy landscape, the Supreme Court of the United States, the United States Senate, the economic stability of the country, and dismantling public education. MacLean’s depiction is quickly becoming the reality, the United States Supreme Court is under a conservative majority that overturned Roe v. Wade, and conservative state legislators across the country passed or proposed legislation that threatened public schools with economic sanctions if Critical Race Theory was taught in public schools (Epps & Sitaraman, 2022; South Carolina House Bill 4325, 2021). My excitement for the future is grounded in educators’ power to resist oppressive policy through praxis and scholarship. Finally, freedom and democracy are rooted in collective action to seek justice and transformation. Transformation of a country that is intimately comfortable with violence against people of color, violence against the LGBTQIA+ community, violence against women, violence against prisoners, violence against the unhoused, and certainly violence against educators. Through collective action with partners in practice, scholars can support justice for those communities who do not know the luxury of higher education, academia, or the safety of academic spaces.


Baker, B. D., Weber, M., & Srikanth, A. (2021). Informing federal school finance policy with empirical evidence. Journal of Education Finance, 47(1), 1-25.

Baker, B. D., Srikanth, A., Cotto Jr, R., & Green III, P. C. (2020). School funding disparities and the plight of Latinx children. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 28(135), n135.

Bell, D. (2004). Silent covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the unfulfilled hopes for racial reform. Oxford University Press.

Buehler, R. (2009). Promoting public transportation: Comparison of passengers and policies in Germany and the United States. Transportation Research Record, 2110(1), 60-68.

DeMatthews, D. E., Knight, D. S., & Shin, J. (2022). The principal-teacher churn: Understanding the relationship between leadership turnover and teacher attrition. Educational Administration Quarterly, 58(1), 76-109.

Epps, D., & Sitaraman, G. (2019). How to save the Supreme Court. Yale Law Journal, 129(1), 148-206.

Green III, P. C., Baker, B. D., & Oluwole, J. O. (2020). School finance, race, and reparations. Washington & Lee Journal of Civil Rights & Social Justice, 27(2), 483-558.

Kelly, M. G. (2020). The curious case of the missing tail: Trends among the top 1% of school districts in the United States, 2000–2015. Educational Researcher, 49(5), 312-320.

Gardner Kelly, M., & Maselli, A. (2022). School finance policies, racial disparities, and the exploding educational debt: Egregious evidence from Pennsylvania. Journal of Education Human Resources, e20220003.

Jenkins, C. (2007). Considering the community: How one rural superintendent perceives community values and their effect on decision-making. Rural Educator, 28(3), 28-32.

Knight, D. S. (2017). Are high-poverty school districts disproportionately impacted by state funding cuts? School finance equity following the Great Recession. Journal of Education Finance, 169-194.

MacLean, N. (2017). Democracy in chains: The deep history of the radical right’s stealth plan for America. New York, NY: Penguin.

Martínez, D.G. (2021). Interrogating social justice paradigms in school finance research and litigation. Interchange: A Quarterly Review of Education, 52(1), 297-317.

Martínez, D.G., & Vazquez-Heilig, J. (2022). An opportunity to learn: Engaging in the praxis of school finance policy and civil rights. Minnesota Journal of Law and Inequality, 40(2), 311-334. Retrieved from

O’Connell, H. A. (2012). The impact of slavery on racial inequality in poverty in the contemporary U.S. South. Social Forces, 90(3), 713-734.

Osworth, D. (2022). Looking toward the field: A systematic review to inform current and future school takeover policy. Research in Educational Policy and Management, 4(1), 1-21.

Phillips, R., Harper, S., & Gamble, S. (2007). Summer programming in rural communities: Unique challenges. New Directions for Youth Development, 2007(114), 65-73.

Rothstein, R. (2017). The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing.

South Carolina House Bill 4325, 124th Session (2021).

Tieken, M., & Williams, S. (2021). Commentary: Times article on rural school misses half the story—Educational success. The Rural Educator, 42(3), 72-73. DOI: ruraled.v42i3.1289

Tran, H., Martínez, D. G., Aziz, M., Frakes Reinhardt, S., & Harrison, T. (2022). Of coalition and resistance in Abbeville v. South Carolina: A policy regimes analysis. Educational Studies, 1-21.

Watson, T. N., & Baxley, G. S. (2021). Centering “Grace”: Challenging anti-Blackness in schooling through motherwork. Journal of School Leadership, 31(1-2), 142-157.

Weiss, J., & McGuinn, P. (2017). The evolving role of the state education agency in the era of ESSA and Trump: Past, present, and uncertain future. Philadelphia, PA: Consortium for Policy Research in Education.Zhang, Y., & Xu, D. (2022). The bus is arriving: Population growth and public transportation ridership in rural America. Journal of Rural Studies, 95, 467-474.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s