by Heather Bennett, PSBA Director of School Equity Services
The pivotal 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education is known for declaring unconstitutional the practice of “separate but equal” in public schools.
Prior to the case, public school districts, specifically in the South, were operating segregated schools based on race, where black children attended one school and were denied access to white schools. The Supreme Court recognized that separating children from others based solely on their race “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to be undone” (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954, p. 494). However, one of the most powerful pronouncements of the case is the Court’s definition of the purpose of education:
Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right, which must be made available to all on equal terms. (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954, p. 493).
This statement made more than 60 years ago is still valid. It holds that education is a right and is the stepping stone to democratic participation and economic and social opportunity for students. It holds that to do so, education must be available on equal terms. However, focusing primarily on equality is not enough.
Why equality falls short
Equality is treating everyone the same. But focusing primarily on equality discounts and disregards students’ unique backgrounds, individualized learning styles, experiences, and our history and systems of discrimination that have held back the opportunities of marginalized populations such as the poor, students of color, women, LGBTQ students, religious minorities, special education students, immigrants and English learner students.
Focusing primarily on equality – or treating all students the same – ignores our commonwealth’s achievement and opportunity gaps. The achievement gap is the academic disparity between groups of students. Usually the achievement gap pertains to major differences in academic indicators such as test scores and graduation rates between white and minority students, male and female students, rich and poor students, English proficient and English learner students, and special education students and non-special education students. The opportunity gap represents how the education system delivers education to different groups of students. Disparities in educational delivery contribute to the divergent academic, social and economic outcomes including these: the inequitable distribution of resources and funding; continued segregation within and between school districts; underrepresentation of staff of color; disciplinary policies that disproportionately affect students of color and special education students; and tracking and ignoring or invalidating the histories and lived experiences of diverse population groups.
The need for equity
Recognizing the critical role of school boards in the provision of education for Pennsylvania’s students, PSBA calls for equity. Equity recognizes that some students and schools need more resources to obtain equal access to a high-quality education. Equity is the just and fair distribution of resources based upon students’ needs. Equitable resources include funding, programs, policies, initiatives and supports that target each student’s unique background and school context. Equity also requires the remedy of resource disparities that contribute to the divergent academic, social and economic outcomes of our students in our districts and communities.
Equity ensures that all students, no matter their disability, gender, socioeconomic status, class, geographic location, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, English language ability, religion or national origin, will have the opportunity and knowledge to reach their highest potential.
Equitable remedies address the economic and social conditions students experience in their homes, neighborhoods and schools. This includes how students get to school, how they learn in school, what they learn in school, how they are treated by peers, teachers and administrators, how their families and communities participate in the education process, what resources are available and needed in schools, and what opportunities exist for these students after school, at home and beyond.
One important dimension of equity is students’ access to high-quality, culturally competent educators and curriculum. This means diverse teachers, administrators and support staff such as librarians, counselors, nurses and social workers. Equity also requires access to curriculum and activities, including STEM and Advanced Preparatory courses, Gifted and Talented courses and programs, extracurricular activities, technology in the classroom and home, and higher education opportunities. Equity considers the impact of public benefits on students’ opportunities to learn, such as health care, food, housing, and environmental and community safety, as well as opportunity gaps between groups of students. Additionally, equity forges the relationship between a school and its community, ensuring that minority and marginalized communities are included in decision-making processes.
A path forward
As the director of Equity Services, my role is to provide public school boards and districts with equity-focused tools and research to support an equal education experience for students. Our plan is to:
- Create and establish an equity statement for PSBA, and enact a model equity policy to help school boards promote equity within their school districts.
- Create an equity taskforce with rural, suburban and urban school boards from across the commonwealth who are committed to pushing equity initiatives forward and could determine what is needed to better serve students.
- Address specific equity issues by putting out whitepapers, best practice case studies, webinars, educational training workshops, resource guides and toolkits.
The promise of Brown – to make our schools more equal for all our students – requires a focus on equity. Equity is a movement, and it requires a commitment by our Pennsylvania school leaders to lead this drive in creating an education system that is truly for our students.