For centuries, our country’s public policies, their implementation and financial investments were unfair, leading to discriminatory practices in banking, housing, public health and the criminal justice system. This systemic discrimination resulted in the achievement gap we see today in our public school system.
After visiting dozens of D.C. schools and speaking with parents and community members, I know that D.C. residents are committed to eliminating the achievement gap as quickly as possible. As chairman of the D.C. Council’s education committee, I grapple every day with the question of how I can level the playing field after unfair policies and investments.
Equity and equality are two approaches to policy that we can take in an effort to produce fairness. Equality is treating everyone exactly the same; it can be effective only when everyone starts in the same position. Equity, on the other hand, is giving everyone what he or she needs to be successful. Equity is a more difficult and expensive approach. Equity will always seem unfair to people who do not have a full understanding of systemic discrimination.
The long-awaited evaluation by the National Research Council of the public education system in the District since the passage of mayoral control confirmed what many already knew. While our schools have made progress, there is much left to do. Overall achievement scores may be up, but the achievement gap is widening between white and minority students.
I share in the urgency to see progress in the public education system in the District, but I am convinced that we won’t see the achievement gap narrow until we begin to approach our policies and investments from an equity framework.
Fortunately, the D.C. government signaled its commitment to equity in providing financial resources to our public schools. While many jurisdictions are wrestling with questions of school finance, adding a weight in our uniform per-student funding formula for students considered “at-risk” was a progressive move by our leaders. Our definition of at-risk is complex and goes beyond receiving free or reduced-price lunch. Some considerations: students who are homeless or in the foster care system, students whose families qualify for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or students who are in high school and a year or more older than the expected age for their grade level. An out-of-boundary student is not automatically considered at-risk.
But funding is only one area where the idea of equity vs. equality is easily discernible.
It is imperative that we shift our mind-set when considering any policy involving our students. For example, when it comes to student health, equality would say that we should provide every school with a school nurse based on national best practices for student-to-nurse ratios. Equity, however, would call for the District to set its ratio based on the health-needs assessment of our student population. Equality is providing the opportunity for every student to take the SAT free of charge. Equity, on the other hand, would be supporting students who are underprepared for the SAT with free test-prep classes and other interventions.
We should look to apply an equity framework even with policies involving teachers and school-based staff. For instance, equality would be evaluating every teacher on a scale by grade level. Equity would be finding a way to incorporate classroom demographics into evaluations, recognizing that not all classes have the same dynamics.
Fixing systemic inequities requires intentionality and taking some risks. The achievement gap was not created overnight and will not be resolved overnight. As we head into a new school year, I will continue to commit to equity. My hope is that everyone in the District who cares about improving our education system will join me in that commitment.