David Hecker: Public education must continue to fight ugly truth of racism

By David Hecker, Michigan Advance

Michigan can and should be a place where every child, regardless of race or ZIP code, has the opportunity to get a quality public education that will set them on a path to success. But we’re not there yet, and it is incumbent on all of us to do the work necessary to strengthen public schools for all students, and specifically to ensure our classrooms are safe, empowering spaces for Black, Indigenous and other students of color. 

Over the years, our education system has not met the needs of students of color in numerous ways. We’ve created an opportunity gap through persistent underfunding of schools in poor communities, lower levels of staffing, and fewer curricular options and afterschool programs in the very schools that need them most to address the effects of systemic racism. These inequities produce well-documented gaps between Black and brown students and their white counterparts when it comes to graduation rates, test scores, college completion, and other measures of success.

In Michigan and across the country, we must confront the well-documented pattern of Black and brown students being disciplined more harshly than their peers from a young age despite no difference in their behavior, hampering their ability to thrive in the classroom and feeding into the school-to-prison pipeline. Instead of empowering students and working to meet their needs, which should always be our goal, these practices criminalize Black and brown students, making them feel unwelcome in their schools and putting them at higher risk of dropping out or being incarcerated later in life. This issue does not stop in high school—our college campuses also fail to support far too many of the students who need us most.

These issues are exacerbated by a lack of educators of color in Michigan schools and colleges—from administrators to teachers and faculty. This shortage is caused largely by the same factors that lead to our state’s broader teacher shortage, including inadequate pay, unreasonable demands placed on educators, and the struggles that come with working in underfunded schools—and that’s not to mention the ever-increasing burden of student debt on recent generations and the reality that most teacher preparation programs are not always as welcoming to students of color as we need to be. With the way educators are treated, it’s no surprise that fewer people are willing and able to become teachers and administrators.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Together, we can chart a better path forward and work toward a future where students and educators of color are respected, supported, and given the resources and opportunities they need to succeed.

Building that future is no easy task, but we can begin to accomplish it by elevating the voices of people of color and education leaders within our movement. At the state level, we know our funding system is broken, and we have a good idea of how we can better serve schools across the state by creating a weighted funding model that recognizes the unique needs of students. We need inclusive curriculum and culturally responsive pedagogy that reflects and celebrates the identities of our students and their communities while exposing them to the full diversity and history of our world.  We should integrate schools into our communities and offer wraparound services to provide basic needs and social emotional support to help all students reach their potential. And we can diversify our teaching force by creating career ladders that help already dedicated educators like paraprofessionals to become certified teachers.

It’s also crucial for individual educators, especially those of us who are white, to understand the realities of systemic racism, evaluate the ways in which we consciously and unconsciously reinforce oppressive systems, and actively work to make our classrooms campuses safe and welcoming spaces for students of color. Here at AFT Michigan, we’re committed to making that happen. While our union has always been committed to fighting racism and all forms of discrimination, we recently added a racial justice section to our strategic goals, establishing it as a key component of our work on par with functions like bargaining contracts and organizing members. We have also begun offering a Justice Leaders training program for leaders within our union to expand their knowledge of structures of privilege and oppression and the role they play in our work.  We, of course, must do more, and we will.

As our country reckons with the ugly truth of racism throughout society, public education needs to be part of that conversation. We have not met the needs of students of color for too long, and it’s on all of us to make a change and be part of the solution.

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