How Will Each of Us Contribute to Racial Justice and Educational Equity Now?
The protests now enveloping our nation are, in one sense, long overdue. The recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade are not isolated incidents: Every year in the United States, more than 1,000 civilians are killed by police, and Black people are disproportionately harmed. These murders and the lack of justice that has routinely accompanied them are, in turn, part of a pattern of institutionalized racism that limits the opportunities of African Americans and other people of color in every aspect of society: employment, housing, health care, and, yes, education.
The results of this discrimination have been clear throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as children and families of color have experienced the results of greater infection and mortality rates, unemployment, housing and food instability, and the digital divide—which prevents children from engaging in education and their parents from engaging in telehealth, job searches, access to benefits, or deliveries of groceries and medicine.
Those of us who work in education must acknowledge that our school systems have been complicit in perpetuating systemic racism. This has included the criminalization and marginalization of Black children by policies and practices ranging from discriminatory discipline to inequitable school funding and staffing to curriculum tracking and school segregation. Our goal in this moment must be to dismantle these discriminatory policies and replace them with approaches that honor the dignity of the lives of Black children as they do of all children.
We know that, just as Black people are racially profiled and over-policed in communities, Black children are criminalized and targeted by discriminatory discipline practices in schools that suspend and expel them disproportionately. Schools serving more Black students are more likely to have metal detectors and police officers, and studies find that the presence of police in schools often leads to arrests and physical abuse of children, especially Black students, without increasing safety. Children have been assaulted, arrested, handcuffed, suspended, and sometimes expelled for acts as small as having a butter knife in a backpack, texting during class, or failing to respond to a question or command. High rates of school exclusion are not due to worse behavior, but because of harsher treatment for minor offenses, such as tardiness, talking in class, or even wearing natural hairstyles.
These harsh punishments increase the chances of students dropping out and feed the school-to-prison pipeline. Meanwhile, investments in social and emotional learning, restorative practices, and mental health supports—as well as in community schools providing health and social services that address the trauma many children experience—pay off in stronger relationships, safer schools, and better achievement. Given these outcomes, we ask: Why aren’t all schools doing this? We must acknowledge that the status quo is untenable and unjust, and we must act now to implement policies and practices that support all students.
We are heartened that district leaders in Minneapolis have acted to end their contract with the police department, and that others are considering doing so. Instead of investing in law enforcement, states and districts can target scarce funds to support mental health services, social-emotional supports, staff training in Restorative Justice, and needed social services. States can issue guidance to districts highlighting the evidence of the harm of a punitive approach and invest in counselors and programs that support student development and learning.
A foundation for this progress must be the fully equitable funding of schools, so that those serving the students with the greatest needs receive more money, not less, as is typically the case. Right now, districts serving the largest populations of Black, Latinx, and Native American students receive on average about $1,800 less per student in state and local funding than those districts serving the fewest students of color. These funding disparities have serious consequences for student academic outcomes, as research shows that money matters for resources that have significant impact on student outcomes, such as class sizes, curriculum, and access to qualified teachers. Civil rights data show that schools with high proportions of students of color have many more uncertified and inexperienced teachers than do predominantly white schools.
When resources are focused where they are needed, the payoff is great. A sweeping study of 50 years of school finance reforms found that, where new formulas enabled 20% more funding for schools serving low-income students—thus improving staffing and programs and reducing class sizes—graduation rates were more than 20 percentage points higher, educational attainment increased, along with employment and adult wages, and the poverty gap for adults was eliminated. All of these gains are associated with large social benefits. Again, we must ask: If we know what works, how much longer will it take to act to implement policies that foster resource equity and expand educational opportunity? We cannot sacrifice the educational futures of Black children and other students of color to an unjust status quo of systemic inequality.
The social consequences of inequitable education are perhaps most obvious in the costs students and society pay for racially segregated schools. Black students attending racially isolated schools that are majority students of color are often faced with the double-segregation of race and poverty in schools lacking vital resources, like qualified educators or college-preparatory curriculum. As a result, their educational outcomes suffer. And white students attending racially isolated majority white schools lack the opportunities to develop intergroup understanding or learn from students with diverse backgrounds. These same harms result from tracking policies that separate students by race, allocating them different qualities of teaching and curriculum within schools, and from teaching and curriculum that are not culturally competent.
The research on the benefits of culturally responsive, integrated education for all students is well-documented and includes not only enhanced achievement and critical thinking skills, but also greater cross-cultural understanding; reduced bias and prejudice; and stronger civic participation in a diverse global economy, among others. Yet schools have been re-segregating at a rapid rate since the 1980s, when many supportive policies were eliminated. In 2010, only about 20% of Black students attended majority-white schools—less than half as many as in 1988, when about 44% did so.
The psychiatrist team of Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark noted in a prescient observation in their brief for 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education: “Segregation not only perpetuates racial stereotypes and reinforces negative attitudes, but also leads to the development of a social climate within which violent outbreaks of racial tensions are likely to occur.” While integrated education is not a panacea and cannot alone cure the violence against Black people and lack of accountability for those perpetrating these acts that we are currently witnessing, it can contribute to deeper understanding and remove the official imprimatur and acceptance of a status quo of separate and unequal education.
Evidence shows that diversity strategies like magnet schools in Hartford, CT, and elsewhere not only reduce racial isolation of Black and Latinx students, but also promote innovative and rigorous education opportunities. And long-term investments in desegregation have improved student graduation rates and life success. We saw the rapid progress made on desegregation—coupled with gains in achievement and attainment—when the federal government provided funding to districts to reduce segregation through magnet schools and transportation supports. One nationwide study found that a Black student exposed to court-ordered desegregation for 5 years experiences a 15% increase in wages and an 11 percentage point decline in annual poverty rates. Despite more recent legal restrictions on school integration programs and decreased federal enforcement of students’ civil rights, many districts are advancing intentionally diverse programs to support racially and socioeconomically diverse schools and classrooms. We need now to ask: Why aren’t we doing this nationwide? And when will action be taken to make it right?
Addressing inequality should not be an academic exercise or an isolated performative act—we who believe in educational justice must commit to the long-game of dismantling and replacing practices that have reproduced educational inequality over time. Just as high school sophomore Barbara Rose Johns waged a student walkout that culminated in a legal battle that would become Brown v. Board of Education, we must also act with courage to upend inequity in education.
Every era of equity progress has come on the heels of social upheaval, when people of conscience joined together to confront injustice and inequality. These have come most powerfully in 30 year cycles: the 1870s ushered in Reconstruction, the early 1900s introduced progressive changes for workers and schools, the 1930s brought FDR’s New Deal, the 1960s ushered in the Great Society and the War on Poverty, the early 1990s strengthened economic and educational equity. 2020 is that moment once again. How will each of us contribute to racial justice and educational equity now?