As a first-gen Mexican-American, high-school and college graduate, former teacher, and PhD who now researches K-12 policy and inequities, I can say with confidence that the U.S. public education system was not built for me or other Folks of Color. Instead, we have a custom built education system for middle and upper class White folks. Undoubtedly. No question. While there is substantial academic research demonstrating this reality, I don’t have to look further than my own experience. While teaching in Arizona only nine years ago, I witnessed a racist state system eliminate a Mexican American Studies program that was designed to empower Latinx students throughout the state. Further, during graduate school in Connecticut just three years ago, I witnessed the legal extension of inequitable school funding models that will inevitably lead to the highest-need communities being denied the resources they deserve and need. I catch myself pausing to ask, “It is 2020, right? As a society and system, we’ve made tons of progress, right?” And I keep landing on, “No.”
This month marks the 66th anniversary of one of the most significant cases in education and civil rights history: Brown v. Board of Education. In 1954, the Supreme Court ended our racist, Jim Crow separatism in favor of equality and access for all, establishing the on-paper precedent that racial segregation in the U.S public school system was unconstitutional. At Promise54, we take special note of the landmark decision that inspired our name as well as our mission to deliver on Brown v Board’s promise. Unfortunately, there is still plenty to do. Nearly seven decades later, we are still working to disentangle the systemic knots that plague our education system. Those knots manifest in plain sight with the persistent “opportunity gap” between low-income Children of Color and affluent White Children; providing not only one of America’s greatest reminders of our racist, violent, and discriminatory past but a painful – and eerily similar – report card on the present too. Essentially, since 1954, the U.S. public education infrastructure has largely continued to offer low-income Children of Color an education that was never designed or meant to serve them and continues to leave them at a systemic disadvantage.
So if we haven’t made much progress on access and equity since 1954, what can we expect to happen to the opportunity gap as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? Will a crisis help?
My answer? Again, no. Stressful times often highlight painful truths. Everything we are experiencing right now, from social distancing to school cancellations, is a first for most of us; there are no concrete answers or maps to navigate these times. While the uncharted territory and uncertainty ahead will require us to learn as we go, we also cannot deny that there are consequences to a “fail forward” approach – especially for those that are already the furthest from opportunity. I would argue that low-income Communities of Color are our nation’s most resilient and adaptable groups of people but, even still, they will experience a disproportionate load of the pandemic’s consequences, essentially magnifying the link between race, class, and outcomes in our country.
So while we prioritize Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (food, health, safety) for ourselves as well as for those we aim to serve, we must also continue to center efforts that interrupt the deeply embedded inequities in our educational system to keep the educational opportunity gap from widening even further while we navigate the pandemic. In short, and in full recognition that I write this from my very privileged seat in the comfort and safety of my own home, I believe that even in this time of crisis we must find ways to disrupt the institutional systems from defaulting to their designed purposes of separation and oppression.
So now (deep breath) HOW do we collectively recommit to solving the intractable challenges that will only grow during the pandemic?
At Promise54 we have a great privilege of being in and out of various different types of organizations, hearing what tactics they’re considering and witnessing those they’re deploying. Here are some of shifts in the field that have captured our attention lately:
- We have seen partners of student-facing organizations pushing more than ever before on a range of issues that impact their stakeholders on the front lines in this fight against inequity: supporting higher teacher wages, advocating for more equitable state funding models, supporting pipeline and retention programs that increase the number of staff whose identities reflect those of the students they serve, and even shifting all non-school-based staff permanently to virtual to decrease expenses and reallocate funds to those in schools.
- We have seen adult-facing organizations – including our own, here at Promise54 – deepening their commitment to disrupting the growing inequities internally by slowing down decision-making to better include those most impacted, ensuring that all colleagues have true choice to care for themselves and others, and disrupting the false binary of DEI versus crisis management. We have seen adult-facing organizations think deeply about the make-up of their teams and ask: which colleagues need additional support right now? Those with children who are without childcare, teachers and professors? Those who are distanced from loved ones and facing the pandemic alone? Organizations are considering how to redesign policies and practices with these colleagues not only in mind, but at the head of the influence and decision-making tables.
- We have seen philanthropic grantmaking organizations double down on support for grantees working to avoid growing inequities in education by adjusting grant milestones to acknowledge new demands on time and energy. We have seen even bolder moves like shifting earmarked grants to general operations or removing milestones altogether to eliminate the pressures of expectations articulated before the world changed. We have even seen philanthropies execute disbursements earlier than planned, so that grantees have the necessary resources now to survive and their leadership has the flexibility now to effectively reprioritize. These shifts are not only empathetic, but they build deep trust and partnership with mission-oriented nonprofits.
We’re inspired by these shifts, and hope optimistically that maybe they’ll even stick beyond COVID-19. In the meantime, if each of our organizations leans in even harder from our own particular place in the field, maybe we can AT LEAST hold the abhorrent opportunity gap right where it is. You are reading that right; given that we’ve now added a worldwide pandemic to the list of hurdles between reality and the promise of the Brown v. Board decision, our collective strength, resilience, and agility may only manage to prevent the opportunity gap from getting worse. But holding the opportunity gap steady is, in and of itself, going to be a herculean challenge, and so in that spirit, I’ll conclude by reminding us all – myself included – that educational equity will not be achieved if we only fight when we are comfortable. Our inequitable system has persisted for over 100 years and it will not change without my, your, and our radical and persistent crusade.
Contact Michael: firstname.lastname@example.org