Politicization, Pandemic Threaten Our ‘Equitable’ Mission

Type: Article
Topics: Equity, School Administrator Magazine

April 01, 2022

Executive Perspective

On Aug. 17, 1865, Birdsey Northrop and several other superintendents met in Harrisburg, Pa., where they founded AASA. A few months earlier, the Civil War had ended and Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated. The need to establish what is today one of the oldest education associations in the country was spurred by the turmoil created by the war and its impact on education.

One central question: How were schools to admit and educate the African-American children freed from slavery?

AASA’s origin was based on providing for the needs of marginalized students. Now, 157 years later, our mission statement still calls for the association to “advocate for equitable access for all students to the highest quality public education.”

Almost 90 years later, in 1954, continued segregation led to the Brown landmark decision that struck down the Separate but Equal doctrine. And here we are, 68 years after Brown, still struggling with a system of education where disparity is rampant and words like “equity” and “social-emotional learning” are not to be spoken for fear of retribution.

Eliminating Barriers

AASA’s mission statement is broad in that it includes “equitable access for all students.” It recognizes that marginalized students include all races. It also recognizes that social and economic factors play a role in who has equitable access to the highest quality public education. The data continue to show that poverty and race correlate highly with poor academic performance and subsequent higher education completion rates.

Entrance exams often are seen as obstacles to admission in selective programs and institutions, preventing inclusivity. Attempts to eliminate those barriers raises concerns on the part of those who see inclusion as removing from the haves to give to the have nots, given the limited capacity in the selective programs. 

Resource limitations is a valid point, suggesting that if all students should have access to the highest quality public education, then responsible policymakers must ensure the financial resources are available for that to happen.

Unfortunately, the way we fund education via the property tax ensures that there will never be equitable resources. High-wealth districts pay teachers better, have better facilities, more technology and smaller class sizes and consistently outperform their underfunded neighbors. The federal government’s attempt to neutralize the playing field by contributing just 10 percent of education funding is woe-fully inadequate.

Ninety percent of our nation’s students attend public schools. There are those who believe that charter schools, vouchers and privatized education are the answer to a better education. But those solutions just take away from the limited resources that school districts have, thus escalating the inequity for the vast majority of students left in the public system. It compounds exclusivity.

The combination of a deadly pandemic and a political divisiveness that has not existed since the Civil War is significantly disrupting education in America. A positive is that the focus on education never has been higher. The school’s childcare function is now more critical than the educational. More superintendents may have lost their jobs this year due to the lack of in-person instruction than poor academic performance. Mask and vaccine mandates also have led to abuse and threats against superintendents. These are circumstances that will begin to dissipate as vaccination rates increase and infection rates decrease.

Public Pushback

Of greater concern is the growing public sentiment that pushes back against AASA’s mission to provide equitable access for all students. To the extent educational equity and social emotional learning are concepts that educators fear addressing because of retribution from their state legislators, their school boards or their communities, it does not bode well for our marginalized students in K-12 education.

Rather, we all must come together to offer the best education possible to students of all races and economic backgrounds in a totally inclusive system supported by the necessary resources for a brighter future rather than a persistently underperforming past.