“We’ve lost a warrior for public education,” a friend told me this week at the memorial service for Ellen Brantlinger. Yes, she was that and much more.
Ellen was a teacher, scholar, mother, wife, grandmother, neighbor, friend, gardener and quilter. She was also, for the past 30 years, the most passionate and eloquent advocate in Bloomington not just for public education but for fair and equitable schooling for all.
A professor in the School of Education at Indiana University, she died on March 24, just over two weeks after suffering a stroke. She was 71.
She was an advocate for public education, but not an uncritical one. An abiding theme of her research was the harm that’s done when schools sort children into winners and losers, often on the basis of family background. Her books included The Politics of Social Class in Secondary School: Views of Affluent and Impoverished Youth and Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage.
During the time that Anne Kibbler, Laura Lane and I wrote about education for the Bloomington Herald-Times, Ellen was the go-to source for frequent stories about social class and schooling – often in the context of disputes over elementary-school redistricting. She was unfailingly patient and thoughtful in answering our questions and aiding our understanding.
The topic was personal for Ellen. When her children were young, the nearby Elm Heights Elementary School was closed. Parents in her affluent university neighborhood rose up against an initial plan to transfer their children to schools that served low-income families. As a result, they were given a choice of where to send their kids. They overwhelmingly chose a school where most parents were well off, like themselves.
Ellen was surprised and disappointed that her liberal neighbors seemed eager to keep their children from going to school with poor kids, and alarmed at the result – continued concentration of poverty in certain schools. But she would recount the experience with a smile, appreciating the irony.
She retired from IU in 2004 and subsequently volunteered as an advocate for children in the family court system and in the library at Fairview Elementary School. At the time of her death, she had been organizing an issues forum for the Monroe County group of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education.
An H-T editorial said it about as well as it can be said: “She was a conscience for the community. Her persistence helped raise awareness that the playing field is far from level for young people who walk through the school doors, and that the school corporation needs to help level it when possible.”