June 18, 2020
This Friday marks the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, when we commemorate the day Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas with the news that the Civil war was over and those who had been enslaved were now free. The day has special meaning for the Southern Education Foundation (SEF), which was established shortly afterwards by abolitionists who worked to ensure education for the newly emancipated and their descendants.
The anniversary is all the more poignant this year, as our nation and the international community grapple with the deeply ingrained systemic and societal racism so evident in the recent murders of African Americans at the hands of police officers and we continue to struggle against COVID-19.
There is a palpable sense of urgency right now around addressing inequity. Even before this latest round of racist killings, COVID-19 was shining a bright light on the inequity in our society, from income inequality – with a disproportionately more African Americans losing their jobs (and some their businesses) since the pandemic took hold, to the digital divide – as schools turned to online learning, students from low-income families and in rural areas struggled without computers or broadband access, to health care inequities – a disproportionate number of African Americans were infected and killed by the COVID-19 virus.
The nation has become increasingly unified around the issue of racial discrimination in these last weeks. A recent poll found that 76 percent of Americans — including 71 percent of white people — believe racism and discrimination are “a big problem” in the United States. If ever there were a time to take action to move forward to improve equity – including education equity – in the United States, this is it.
It was acts of police brutality that were the tipping point for the recent protests and the calls for revisiting how our police departments function and eliminating police in schools. Several cities and school districts are already taking action or considering action to either reduce or eliminate school policing that has often resulted in Black and brown children being disproportionately and more harshly punished for minor infractions. Schools should be places of learning where students feel welcomed and safe, not targeted. No child can learn who lives in fear.
This is just one aspect of civil rights in education and the full range of those rights must be guaranteed to all our children. SEF has signed onto a set of civil rights principles for safe, healthy and inclusive school climates that calls for eliminating school based-law enforcement, as well as: ensuring the rights of students, encouraging schools to implement comprehensive and supportive discipline practices, addressing childhood trauma, enhancing protections against harassment and discrimination, ensuring accountability through accurate and comprehensive data collection, investing in school infrastructures that support positive school climates, and eliminating threats to students’ health and safety.
We join numerous other civil rights, youth advocacy, and education organizations in calling on Congress to incorporate these principles into all relevant legislation to ensure students are learning in safe, healthy, and inclusive environments.
To that end, we also need to examine our ability to educate ALL students if that learning must be done remotely. In the same way that the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshad Brooks have focused attention on police brutality, COVID-19 has highlighted the continuing digital divide and inequities in education. As states begin the process of administering summer school programs and planning for reopening schools in the fall, many southern states have released comprehensive plans for reopening with COVID-19 social distancing protocols in place. Those plans will require additional funding for our schools, funding that cannot be allowed to be diverted to private schools that do not serve all children.
As we look toward fall and the possibility of online-only or online and in-person teaching, we must also consider the lessons of this spring when students who did not have regular access to computers or to the internet struggled to keep up with classmates who had those advantages. We must take action, and quickly, to bridge the digital divide.
This is an unprecedented moment in our nation’s history – there is a laser-like focus on inequity and people researching and seeking to implement solutions so that we can move toward a more just and equitable future. We must take advantage of this moment to push for public policies that will take us there.