On campaign trails recently, a serious discussion has emerged about the debt the United States government owes its Black citizens, who continue to face obstacles to achieving the American dream as a result of the lasting effects of enslavement. The killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Elijah McClain unleashed a wave of racial unrest linked to the disproportionate impacts of police violence on communities of color. A demand for reparations has resurfaced full force as the nation reckons with that and other legacies of institutional racism. Any attempts to address these social ills must include equitable funding and designs for schools that afford every child an opportunity to break through the ceiling of systemic injustice.
Through centuries of policy and practice, from being subjected to barbaric slave codes to being redlined into ZIP codes with limited opportunity for upward mobility, Black people have been mistreated and blocked from opportunity by American institutions. To various degrees and at different times, they have been denied education, health care, homeownership, employment, and the vote. These injustices show up in the classroom as troubling gaps in achievement, disparities in school discipline, and ongoing inconsistencies in college access and completion that ultimately contribute to a wealth gap that will take more than 100 years to close if nothing changes. The COVID-19 pandemic has further distinguished the opportunity divide.
New York is a good example of racialized educational injustice. The city has faced an ongoing struggle to admit Black and Latinx students to its specialized high schools in proportion to their numbers in the public school student population. Admission is determined by a single test, even though the results of end-of-course tests would not similarly disadvantage Black and Latinx students. Adding to the inequity, Black and Latinx students do not generally have access to the same quality of preparation as white students. And we need no other reminder of just how uneven the playing field is for Black people seeking access to upward mobility through education than the massive college-admissions scandal in 2019.
Historic and systemic inequity in educational opportunity is a debt that must be paid."
The Trump administration, meanwhile, has systematically tried to dismantle the few tools available to maintain equity for students. It attempted to illegally delay regulations created to address racial disparities in the treatment of students who receive special education services. It also sought to roll back guidance established to disrupt biased school discipline practices. It pressured Texas Tech University’s school of medicine to adopt a policy eliminating the use of race as a factor in admissions and backed the plaintiffs in the Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. Harvard University case seeking to eliminate the use of race in admissions. And most recently, the administration waged an attack on curriculum that aims to provide an accurate history of the United States.
All of these actions, and many others, show an increasing aversion to acknowledging and addressing negative impacts based on race. These are just a few reasons elected leaders serious about reparations should look no further than the nation’s education system to begin closing gaps in opportunity.
There’s a rich history of Black Americans pursuing education as a pathway to full citizenship, while maintaining their identity and sovereignty. Prince Hall, a free Black man who fought in the Revolutionary War, started schools to serve free Black children in Boston when they were denied access to Boston public schools. In 1862 and 1890, land grants provided opportunities to Black students seeking higher education by creating a Black college or university for every newly established institution that refused admission to Black people. And today, Black families are again taking matters into their own hands, establishing schools that conspicuously honor their children’s identity and ancestry while providing academic rigor and a culturally sustaining curriculum.
Civic and political leaders need not look far when devising a strategy for reparations. Historic and systemic inequity in educational opportunity is a debt that must be paid. And we see some institutions of higher education already taking the lead to make amends for past atrocities.
Here are just a few suggestions for leading by addressing historic gaps:
• Establish a mechanism such as the Public Education Opportunity Grants proposed by my organization, the Center for American Progress, to dramatically increase the federal investment in K-12 education and fill the annual $23 billion gap in state and local funding between predominantly white and predominantly nonwhite school districts;
• Identify and distribute $200 billion for school infrastructure to update the 54 percent of U.S. school buildings that are crumbling and outdated;
• Create a grant program to improve teacher preparation, recruitment, and ongoing professional development that fully incorporates culturally responsive pedagogy and acknowledge the new majority of students of color in public schools across America;
• Pass legislation to implement the “Powell exception” in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, which would call for elimination of property-tax-based school financing models that advantage wealthy and mostly white districts above predominantly nonwhite districts; and
• Incentivize state education agencies to conduct deep racial-equity audits, eliminate whitewashed curriculum, implement strategies to promptly address negative racial impacts, and establish frameworks for applying a race-equity lens to future policy and programming decisions.
While some of these recommendations will inherently benefit public school students of all races, it is also the case that creating policies targeted exclusively at repairing the ongoing harm to Black Americans stemming from the transatlantic slave trade will benefit all Americans.
Leadership on educational equity must be clear and specific, especially during this time of unrest and transformation. And it must start by acknowledging how education was intentionally withheld from enslaved Americans and for many generations systematically under-resourced in Black communities within the confines of the law. Leaders can then take the right first steps to repay a debt owed to a people whose blood, sweat, and tears made this great nation possible.