We Need To Talk: How states can lead the conversation on equity

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This is a guest blog post by Washington State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos and Ohio State Sen. Peggy Lehner. 

At first glance Ohio and Washington are very different states (coastal vs. Midwest, the Seahawks vs. the Browns and Bengals, blue vs. red) but in reality we’re more alike than we think. In both states, despite hard work, low-income students and students of color lack opportunities to achieve prosperity, success, and upward social mobility. But there is something we can all do about it.

A new report by the Aspen Institute and the Council of Chief State School Officers identifies concrete actions state education leaders can take to help achieve educational equity in their states. One of the first recommendations in the report was for state leaders to “proactively initiate and lead conversations about equity.”

We couldn’t agree more.

As state legislators in Ohio and Washington state, we’ve encountered hesitance and resistance from some of our colleagues, other state officials, and even educators when it comes to having honest and frank discussions on how to close achievement and opportunity gaps. In Ohio, bipartisan proposals to address systemic racial disparities in the number of students suspended or expelled from school led some to contend we were accusing school administrators of being racist. In Washington state, a comprehensive education opportunity bill survived attempts to break it into discrete pieces from opponents who didn’t see the need for a holistic, culturally-conscious approach to address our state’s equity challenges.

It’s undeniable that it is difficult to confront the issue of race. Many of us do lack the skills or experience to have these discussions without getting defensive or putting others on the defensive. But before we can successfully address all the barriers that prevent our kids from succeeding in school, we need to lay the groundwork, both in understanding the history of racial discrimination in public education, including the role of unconscious or implicit bias, and in understanding the data around the extent of inequity within and outside the education system.

While many policymakers may be more comfortable talking about our equity challenges in terms of helping low-income students, poverty is not a proxy for race and culture. When data is available (and more of it is necessary), the numbers show that even affluent students of color have difficulty attaining the same academic achievements or accessing similar opportunities as their white classmates. Cultural competency training and recruiting and retaining teachers of color aren’t simply pie-in-the-sky aspirations. These policies can help bridge gaps in cultural understanding between teachers and students, and tangibly raise student confidence and performance.

Engaging in frank conversations about serving low-income students is not easy either.  State legislators and equity advocates still find themselves having to repeat what should be common knowledge: that it costs a state more to educate a low-income student than a wealthy student. If equity is really a priority, then greater funding for struggling students has to be part of the equation. But instead of framing it as a zero–sum-game, we need to think about funding equity in terms of what we collectively stand to gain. What is the return on investment if we fully fund pre-K for families with low incomes? What do we all stand to gain in terms of shared economic growth and civic engagement if all students receive an excellent education?

No one policymaker can or should lead every conversation surrounding educational equity. But we each come with our perspectives, and if we open up that conversation across party and ideological lines, to other state leaders, educators, community leaders, parents and students, we can learn more about the best ways to move forward so that educational equity becomes a reality and not just a slogan. It may be uncomfortable at first, but talking about and understanding why some students succeed (and others don’t) will go a long way towards crafting better education policy that provides districts, schools, and teachers with the supports they need, and truly helps all students succeed.

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