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  • Writer's pictureEPPE Network

Black Lives Matter: Addressing Racial Inequity in the U.S. Education System

Over the past few weeks, protests have erupted across the United States and around the world in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, along with countless others, at the hands of police officers. Protestors have called for cuts to police office budgets, retraining for all officers, and, in some cases, a complete abolishment of the police force. Some cities, including Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, have already announced initial steps towards reforming their current approach to policing. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti has announced a proposal to cut $100-150 million from police department funding and divert those funds to programs that will benefit communities of colour, including education. Many other cities may follow suit.

Nationwide conversations on police brutality and racial bias in policing are long overdue, but these conversations cannot focus on policing alone. If divestments in police forces intend to result in meaningful impact for Black Americans, then access to quality schools, adequate and consistent school funding, and an increase in digital resources for education must all be priorities. In order to confront racial inequality in the United States, we must acknowledge and address the longstanding race-based inequity that exists within the American education system.

Desegregation and Resegregation of American Public Schools

In 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, outlawing the previously held “separate but equal” doctrine for segregation by arguing that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Chief Justice Earl Warren stated in the majority opinion that public schools must integrate “with all deliberate speed.

“With all deliberate speed” was interpreted by many states to mean rather slowly, and not without federal intervention. Over the next decade, there were several publicised incidents associated with the first Black students enrolling in historically White schools, including the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas in 1957, six-year-old Ruby Bridges in New Orleans in 1960, and James Meredith at the University of Mississippi in 1962. These students were met with violent riots, significant opposition from their local governments, and teachers who refused to teach them.

National Guard soldiers deny Elizabeth Eckford, age 15, entry to Little Rock Central High School in September 1957.

Nearly 70 years have passed since the Brown decision, and not much progress has been made. Public schools may no longer have explicit policies regarding segregation, but the racial breakdown of student enrollment highlights a critical issue — that many U.S. public schools are, in fact, resegregating. A 1998 Brookings study on race and education found that 66% of minority students still attend schools where the student body is majority minority, with many of these schools located in urban areas and receiving significantly less public funding than nearby suburban counterparts. The percentage of Black students in this year’s incoming freshman class at Stuyvesant High School, New York City’s most selective public high school, is only 1.3%, and its percentage of Hispanic students is only 2.6%. For comparison, New York City’s public school system is approximately 70% Black and Hispanic, and more than 74% of New York City’s Black and Hispanic students attend a school with less than 10% White students.

Inequitable Opportunity: Funding and Resource Allocation

For too long, public narratives around racial inequity in education have focused on the so-called “achievement gap,” which tends to focus on differences in outputs, such as standardised test scores, between Black and White students. Outputs cannot be adequately compared, however, when the inputs vary significantly. As the Brookings study notes, differences in these outcomes are “much more a function of their unequal access to key educational resources, including skilled teachers and quality curriculum, than they are a function of race.” If we are to discuss differences in educational experiences for American children based on race, we must acknowledge how these different inputs have contributed to the persistent opportunity gap.

The most significant input to be considered, which is arguably a consequence of continued segregation in American public schools, is differences in funding. Last year, a research and advocacy nonprofit called EdBuild found that, in 2016, predominantly White school districts received $23 billion more in state and local funding than their predominantly nonwhite counterparts. Edbuild also determined that high-poverty school districts that are predominantly nonwhite receive approximately $1,600 less per student than the national average — which is especially significant, since the Economic Policy Institute noted this year that Black students are more than twice as likely as their White counterparts to attend high-poverty schools. This reduced funding means older textbooks and lackluster critical facilities, as well as fewer educational aids, like computers and instructional resources. It also means lower salaries and less funding for continuous professional development for teachers and staff. As a 2018 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights stated when discussing differences in school funding, the current American public education system is “fundamentally inconsistent with the American ideal of public education operating as a means to equalize life opportunity, regardless of zip code, race, economic status, or life circumstance.”

Most urgently, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these funding differences by increasing the digital divide. The digital divide often refers to the gap between students who have reliable access to the internet and computer technology both at school and at home. The NAACP also identifies a significant digital divide existing between “students who are taught to use technology in active, creative ways to support their learning, and those who mainly use technology for passive content consumption,” and notes that students and families of colour are often doubly disadvantaged. Just two months ago, the Washington Post noted that approximately 45,900 students (out of a total 51,000 students) in the high-poverty Detroit Public Schools Community District did not have the technology or internet access available at home that was required for virtual learning. To note, 82% of Detroit Public Schools Community District students are Black. A June 2020 McKinsey & Co. study warned that, while the average learning loss for students during the COVID-19 pandemic may be around 7 months, Black students may fall behind by 10.3 months. This learning loss will likely have considerable and long-lasting impacts on these students, who are already at increased risk of getting COVID-19.

Estimated learning loss during COVID-19, highlighting inequitable outcomes for Black students (McKinsey, 2020).

Identifying Our Roles in Promoting Equity and Opportunity

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the underlying inequities within our education systems — and while this article focuses on those ingrained in the American system, these problems are by no means limited to the United States. Increasing our awareness of race-based inequities within our own institutions can indeed feel paralysing, but it must compel us towards positive action and capacity-building.

Though we may not yet hold the positions of power that control school districting or funding, there are several actionable steps we can take to effect change, including:

- Committing to learning about and analysing racial inequalities in our own communities, and reflecting on how our own behaviours may contribute to these systems. Engaging in honest conversations with friends and family members about these issues, most especially if their views or experiences may differ from our own.

- Ensuring that individuals in positions of power within our communities (including national leaders as well as local school board members) are promoting equity. Identifying the power that we may yield to hold them accountable, such as voting or engaging in public dialogue.

- Paying attention to where we devote our attention, our money, and our time. Finding organizations that are working to address these issues and support their work — apply for jobs, provide charitable contributions, and/or pursue volunteer opportunities.

Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old who bravely enrolled as the first Black student at William Frantz Elementary School in 1960, is only 65 years old today. We are fortunate to be able to hear her insight on the progress that has been made within equity and inclusion, as well as the inequality that persists. As members of the EPPE community, I hope that we each remain dedicated to the work we must continue to do, in our classrooms, communities, and as individuals, to fight for equity for our students and for each other.


Many thanks to this week's contributor, Sheila Crowell. You can get in touch with her via her member profile page.

Sheila has provided the following recommended resources for further learning:

The 1619 Project Curriculum from Nikole Hannah-Jones

Being Anti-Racist from the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Problem We All Live With from This American Life

21-Day Racial Equity Challenge from the Michigan League for Public Policy

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