Dear President Biden and Secretary Cardona:
We are a group of education activists from all over the country, demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. We call on you to prioritize Black and Brown lives and to take counsel from Black and Brown parents.
As many as 3 million U.S. children—many of them Black and Brown—were abandoned by remote learning last spring. Many Black, Brown and rural children still lack the internet access needed to attend remote school.
The current pandemic lends new urgency to the fundamental equity challenge we activists have seen all along: K-12 education in the United States has never been designed with the success of Black and Brown students in mind. Now is the time to right this fundamental wrong. As you explore plans to reopen schools and increase resources for the most vulnerable students, we urge you to take bold, creative steps on behalf of Black and Brown children and their families.
Restoring and Protecting Civil and Human Rights
Protect Student Rights and Dignity
Whether students are learning online or in-person, their rights and dignity must be protected at all times. This begins with a commitment to end policing in schools. It’s time to redirect federal funds used to pay for School Resource Officers (SROs) or school-related community policing (through the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services). Federal funds that previously supported policing can be redirected toward much-needed social and emotional support for students, professional development for school personnel on trauma-informed approaches to discipline and school climate, additional personnel and equipment, and more.
Rebuild the Office of Civil Rights
We appreciate your stated commitment to rebuild and restore the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. OCR must resume and strengthen its work to end the school-to-prison pipeline and protect the educational rights of all students regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation or disability status. That requires an updated and strengthened version of the 2014 school discipline guidance package. New guidance is needed in many areas; most urgently, clear guidance to school staff on compassionate, trauma-informed alternatives to exclusionary discipline for disciplinary issues in pandemic learning (mistakes related to masks and social distancing, not turning on a camera in remote learning, attendance issues related to trouble with technology or supervision, etc.)
OCR must also continue to collect and make public data on school climate and the use of exclusionary discipline practices (suspensions and expulsions). All suspensions, including suspensions from remote learning, must be documented and disaggregated by OCR-required categories.
Enhance Representation in School Curricula
Every student deserves to be exposed to a school curriculum that offers “windows: into other cultures as well as “mirrors” of their own. HIstorically, the curriculum has too often overfocused on European culture and history at the expense of other world cultures. For Black and Brown students, the curriculum can be a source of active harm when it fails to show them relatable role models or examples of the inherent worth and dignity of all peoples and all cultures. While school curricula are locally determined, the federal government can lend a bully pulpit to the issue and provide a clearinghouse of best practices and a library of lessons and materials.
Power-Sharing and Resource Management
We want Black and Brown parents to carry weight in Washington, and we want them to help determine just and prudent allocation of federal resources to support K-12 students in this crisis and beyond. What does just and prudent allocation of federal resources look like? Here are some examples:
Create a Title I Parent Engagement Committee
While we applaud Biden’s commitment to send more resources to families whose children attend Title I schools, we believe that new resources must be coupled with responsible, knowledgeable oversight and insight to ensure those dollars are well spent. Who better to offer such wisdom than Black and Brown parents, who well know all the ways dollars meant for the classroom never arrive or are frittered away chasing the latest educational fad?
To ensure their knowledge informs federal decision making, we will hold the Biden administration accountable to create a Title I Parent Engagement Committee, which will enlist experienced parents and offer them opportunity for meaningful input into decision making per ESSA guidelines.
Protect Students With Disabilities
IDEA, the federal law protecting students with disabilities, was passed in 1990, but it is still woefully underfunded. But resources aren’t the only problem: Racial equity and parent power must be prioritized. Special education must be viewed through a racial equity lens, given longstanding disparities in outcomes for Black and Brown students who have IEPs and concerns about Black and Brown students experiencing both under- and over-identification for special education. States need additional federal guidance in implementing IDEA, especially with regard to improving accessibility for distance learning. Parent power can be enhanced by increasing family-centered practices and expanding support for the Parent Training Information Centers that are part of the IDEA mandate.
Internet for All
Unrestricted internet access for every U.S. household would lay the foundation for educational justice during the pandemic and beyond. Yet 16.9 million children live in households without high-speed internet, and 7.3 million don’t have access to a computer.
At a minimum, every public K-12 student in the United States must have access to reliable, high-speed internet service. Getting us there will require leadership from the Federal Communications Commission and a stronger role for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology. States and districts need federal leadership not just to put the tools in place, but to curate and share best practices for digital learning.
Effective, Culturally Responsive Teachers
We want Title I professional development monies spent only on effective teacher professional development. Sounds logical, and it’s hard to make it happen in practice. We strongly recommend that districts use their Title I professional development dollars to provide elementary teachers with training in the science of reading (such as in Mississippi with help from the Barksdale Foundation).
It’s time for Black and Brown children to receive the educational equity and justice they have long been denied.
TAKE ACTION and join us in demanding that the new administration prioritize Black and Brown lives and listen to the needs of our most vulnerable children and families.