Reversing institutionalized racism in public education

Institutional racism is insidious. It hides in plain sight in arrangements that look neutral but aren’t. 

As the Black Lives Matter movement is teaching us, practices can be racist and undermine equity even if well-intentioned people follow them.

Even before the coronavirus shutdown that exposed inequities in access to remote learning, important aspects of our public education system systematically worked against Black and Hispanic children, and children from low-income households. These include:

  • Teacher placement systems that let senior teachers avoid schools in poorer and less orderly parts of town—meaning that those schools would have inexperienced staff and high turnover.
  • Rules that render principals of challenged schools unable to reject teachers who would not be a good fit in their school. 
  • School zoning that forces children from low-income households to change schools whenever their families move, or cuts off access to better schools near them. 
  • Within-district school finance systems that ignore the differences in spending in schools with highly experienced (and therefore highly paid) vs. rookie (and low-paid) teachers.
  • Board and central office tendencies to regulate and frequently intervene in schools with low absolute test scores, and to put excellent programs and resources in schools with influential parents.

None of these arrangements was designed to harm children of color or those from low-income families, but they have had terrible effects. They cause schools serving these students to have less experienced staff, more staff turnover, less stable leadership, and more regulatory constraints on what they can do to meet children’s needs.

When teacher salaries are considered, schools serving large numbers of students from historically marginalized groups have less money than other schools in the same districts. (Marguerite Roza documented these consequences more than a decade ago, but they still apply.) Frequent family moves mean children must change schools more often, but parents aren’t given the opportunity to choose a school that would be a better match for their child. 

These arrangements have benefits. They reward loyal senior teachers and engaged parents, protect stable schools from being overcrowded and overburdened, and allow elected school boards do their duty as they see it. They persist because they mean a lot to those who benefit from them—including white parents, whose children wind up with more experienced teachers and gain access to sought-after special programs.

With assorted colleagues, I tried for years to think of a more equitable way to run a public education system so that schools would receive equitable funding, be able to keep their best teachers and attract others on the basis of fit, and have the freedom to pursue consistent lines of action and solve problems.

Expecting that coherent schools would not all be the same, I also worked on how parents could transfer their children to a school that was a better fit, without creating new inequities. The policy principles that emerged were straightforward: 

  • Funding students, not employees or programs, and having real dollars follow students to the public school they attend.
  • Placing teachers in schools by mutual consent (of the teacher and the school leader).
  • Giving parents the freedom to opt into and out of schools.
  • Performing public oversight of schools via tailored support and performance agreements, not piecemeal regulation. 
  • Offering new schooling options from within and outside the district for students whose current schools aren’t working well.

By themselves, these ideas are not enough to reverse the biases and inequities in public K–12 education. Unequal access to technology is not a new barrier, but its ill effects are clearer than ever now.

Even if public education were structured around the five points above, implementation and personal initiative would always matter. Equity would still depend on teachers doing their jobs effectively and finding ways to reach kids who had unusual needs, fears, and traumatic backgrounds. School leaders would need to avoid motivational and disciplinary codes that scar or exclude children of color. Curricula would need to adequately reflect the contributions of Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic writers, represent intellectuals and historical figures, and could not ignore how everyone else in America benefited from slavery and post-slavery repression. To get all students the benefits of education in race- and class- integrated settings, district and school leaders would need to combat the hardening of suspicions and resentments among parent groups.

Yet the principles listed above are necessary, if not sufficient, in themselves: marginalized families can’t have a chance if they get the last pick of everything and their learning is constantly disrupted.

The five principles have been clear for more than 20 years, and some district leaders have tried to put them into practice. But progressive interest groups keen to right wrongs against marginalized groups have largely ignored—or in some cases attacked—these principles, as they often worked against their vested interests. (The exception, Education Trust, picked up on transparent pupil-based budgeting and got a form of it written into California law).

Why has the progressive left looked the other way? Three reasons. First, there are juicier targets, like inequitable state school finance systems, that can be attacked more cheaply through litigation and can swing impressive amounts of money even if their results are often disappointing. Second, attacking institutionally-racist practices inside school districts would pit progressive groups against teachers unions and middle-class parents, who are key funders and allies in other matters. Third, a successful propaganda operation has cast parent choice and performance-based oversight as intrusions of market thinking, and steps toward taking the public out of public education—i.e., privatization.

The third reason is the most harmful. It implicitly asserts that the institutional biases identified above are part of a seamless web of arrangements that make up public education, and that any challenge to them threatens the whole. This can’t be true, since with these practices school districts can’t serve their core purpose of educating all children effectively. In other words, this is a failure to distinguish between the purposes of public education and the means or delivery system created to achieve those ends.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, status quo forces in public education had gained ascendancy, especially in the Democratic party. Advocates for marginalized groups advocated for greater social justice in the abstract and more money for teachers and students, but opposed structural changes that would redistribute funds and create new opportunities for kids and families.

Now, amid the pandemic, structural changes and new opportunities are possible. Districts must find new ways of employing educators—as tutors and mentors as well as classroom teachers. They must use money in new ways to pay for connectivity, devices, and new online courses. They must redefine schools as providers of instruction in any way necessary to meet individual children’s safety and learning needs. And they will need to look for the best possible options for their kids and abandon practices and providers that are not working for them. 

As the response to COVID-19 continues to evolve through the 2020–2021 school year, states and districts have the opportunity to adopt transparent pupil-based equality in distribution of funds, parent freedom to stay in a school or choose a better fit, and openness to ideas and new providers. If they get it right, the results will be richer and more open to personalization than anyone would have imagined before the pandemic drove so much of public education online into children’s homes, and made parents such important decision-makers and providers. If, under pressure from unions or privileged families, districts scramble back to the status quo, institutionally racist practices will return and a great opportunity will be lost.

Better results for children of color and those from low-income families are far from guaranteed. But changes to institutionalized inequities that were politically and technically out of the question only a few months ago are possible now. 

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