Rachel Levy: In pursuit of equity and social justice

SOE alum takes aim at providing opportunities in public education – for everyone

Rachel Levy, Ph.D., is originally from Washington, D.C., but has lived in Virginia for 18 of the past 20 years. She earned her Ph.D. in Education, Concentration in Educational Leadership, Policy and Justice from the VCU School of Education in 2018. She is currently a government teacher in Caroline County Public Schools, and is running as a Democratic candidate to represent the 55th District in Virginia’s House of Delegates.

Headshot of Rachel Levy, alumna of the VCU School of Education.
Rachel Levy (Ph.D. ’18)

What originally drew you to the field of education?

I worked as a camp counselor and babysitter as a teenager, and in college considered teaching as a career. My second year out of college, I was living in Brooklyn, New York, and took a job at a private Quaker school as a French and after-school teacher. I found my calling. I am a product of public schools and wanted to teach in public schools, so I moved back to D.C. and applied to masters programs in education, ultimately deciding on George Washington University.

Did anyone inspire you to pursue study in this field?

Two things influenced me to choose this field.

  1. My mother is a public education advocate and activist, and a civil rights lawyer specializing in education.
  2. After a number of years in the public school classroom, I started to get curious about the policies that were (for better and for worse) dictating my practice and dictating what happens in K-12 schools. I wanted to know more about the larger systems and institutions, about how power is distributed, and how to make those institutions and systems more fair and just.

Why VCU SOE for your Ph.D.?

By the time I decided to apply to doctoral programs, I was almost 40 years old with three children and a husband who had a tenure-track job at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. We weren’t going to move any time soon, so frankly, VCU was convenient. Also, Dr. Jonathan Becker recruited me. I liked that VCU SOE was an urban campus. It was similar to GWU in that way, and in the way that it has students from across the region and relationships and opportunities with all types of school districts.

What impressed you most about your Ph.D. program?

The breadth I got in the foundations classes, and the depth I got in my track classes.

Any tips for students who are considering study in this program?

  1. Have a goal for what you want to do when you’re finished, and plan your program of studies, research, and the connections you make during the program toward achieving that goal.
  2. Understand that while the program in Educational Leadership, Policy and Justice at VCU is genuinely undergirded by the pursuit of equity and social justice in education, the field of K-12 education and its institutions are not there yet, even if they talk as if they are. You might not get the same reception in practice that you do theory.

How did VCU SOE deepen your interest in educational policy?

Public education is our most important public democratic institution; it is the backbone of a healthy democracy. In some communities, it is one of the only, if not the only, shared public space. However, public education as an institution has also historically been, and presently still is, a tool of injustice and inequality. My work, our work, is to rebuild the institution of public education while ensuring it equitably serves and provides opportunities to EVERYONE, especially those who have been excluded in the past.

I was already an activist with an interest in policy and very involved civically when I started at VCU. I almost ran for the 55th District seat while I was in the middle of my Ph.D. program, but I decided that I needed to finish first. My education and training at VCU SOE helped me to make sense of educational research, to evaluate claims being made based on educational research, to be more careful when making my own claims, and to confidently use educational research in my own approach to policy.

I also did a semester-long externship with the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, sharing my time between the Virginia Department of Education and the General Assembly. This experience was invaluable – I learned so much about policymaking and about how our educational system(s) in Virginia work. I also learned that I really wanted to be one of the people solving the systemic problems I had spent so much time hearing and thinking about.

Perhaps I will finally get that chance.