The social contract is badly broken; we see it in the streets and feel it in our hearts. Americans of every stripe are questioning the legitimacy of authority and seeking new and equitable ways to build trust.
Every path to redeeming the social contract runs through public education. Rooting-out race as the arbiter of opportunity and outcomes in school is essential to effectively advancing racial justice in the larger society. This work is essential to transcending the cycles of violence that Baldwin, Hamer, King, and Malcolm X prophesize as Americans’ fate until we reconcile our ideals with our actions.
Three interconnected crises right now illustrate the perilous state of American society:
- America’s cities are aflame at the recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor — and the endless violence visited on people of color in America as a matter of course. Spontaneous demonstrations led by people of color expressing anger and demanding justice are drawing broad support, across lines of race and even party, despite the grotesque response emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
- Over the last three months, and likely over the next 12-18 more, the most serious pandemic in a century is causing sickness, social isolation, and economic hardship. The pandemic, too, preys on the disproportionate burdens borne by people of color – more underlying health conditions, less able to work from home or have internet access – killing black Americans at much higher rates.
- All of this inequity is undergirded by a long-term crisis of injustice: America subjects people of color disproportionately to inadequate access to food, housing, healthcare and other basic necessities. This stunts the learning and life potential of children of color, and creates immoral disparities as the context for every American’s formative moral development.
Public education is implicated in each of the crises and has a vital role in addressing them. Like the interlocking crises, the solutions need to be short-, medium- and long-term – and need to center on racial-equity as powerfully as the racial inequities that stand in the way. As one of us wrote in an open letter the Fordham Institute leaders in March, “white Americans  have a solemn, shared responsibility to address the racial dimensions of educational opportunity and outcomes—past and present.”
In the short-term, we need leadership to get schools open again. Relatively little federal funding has been allocated to schools, an abdication of federal responsibility and a sharp distinction from stimulus following the Great Recession. Providing food security for the summer is in disarray, and school systems have no clarity on whether additional funds and flexibility will be in place before next year. To the contrary, cuts in food stamps are still being pursued, estimated to exacerbate food insecurity for 1 million children – amid a pandemic and historic economic vulnerability. For schools to focus on their educational mission, provision of basic services like food and internet access needs to be shared across government agencies and community partners. Districts need an infusion now of funds to retrofit schools with public-health infrastructure and staff/students with technology, but they are instead being told to expect debilitating cuts to next year’s budgets. Federal leadership is needed to forestall untenable and inequitable decisions about schooling.
Race and racism are central to perpetuating injustice in America. Anti-racist education must become a part of school starting next year, including the literature and history studied and the ways all students are taught to take different perspectives and communicate across lines of difference. Facing History and Ourselves, EL Education, and Teaching Tolerance are a few resources that combine rigorous academic discourse with deep learning about race and racism in America – through history and today. Covid-19 and protests against police brutality are the most important teachable moments of a generation. Students will feel the hypocrisy viscerally if education ignores these issues, and we will miss an opportunity to lay the foundation for truth and reconciliation.
Leadership in this moment must be about ceding power to those most directly affected by the challenge. Students are stepping-up to voice their aspirations and concerns for the next year; leaders need to do more than listen. In Chicago, principals are hired by the school community – why not institute local site councils with this authority everywhere? States are stepping-up to fund community school coordinators. Permanent policies embedding authentic reliance on parents as partners should be institutionalized alongside collective bargaining, academic standards, and other “givens” of the school power structure.
The conditions to which students and staff return in the 2020-21 school year must prioritize fundamental human needs: relationships, rebuilding trust, and attending to healing – at the individual, community, and national levels. This includes an intensive focus on school climate, including rebalanced accountability systems that prioritize healthy conditions for learning as guaranty we make to all students. We know that student mindsets regarding belonging, efficacy, effort, and relevance of schoolwork determine engagement and achievement – and predict success in college and work even better than test scores. We also know students of color are less likely to have these mindsets cultivated by their schools. Let’s start treating conditions for learning as a primary responsibility of schools – not a nice to have, not optional, but the guaranty we make to each student, of every background.
Of course, long-term solutions are the hardest but just as important to start pursuing now. America is the only country with an advanced economy that spends less money educating students who face the most adversity outside of school; abject unfairness with a clear racial dimension is built into our system. Funding formulas finally have to change so that students who need the most support get it.
We all are implicated in the healing that has to take place. It’s been said that “change happens at the speed of trust.” In the Education & Society Program, we believe that the most important work we can do is at the human level. That starts with a willingness to listen and learn, to challenge assumptions – our own and others’. We know how much we’ve grown through our interactions with so many of you. We are leaning into this challenge through the tables we set and the topics we treat, as well as our internal work as a team. We hope you’ll join with us in these efforts.
You will see in the coming weeks and months an aggressive new pace of convenings and action insights from the Education and Society Program. The instant crises drive this pace, but the social contract demands that we all sustain the work so that public education and civil society emerge — at last — as bulwarks of community empowerment and pillars of justice for all.
Director, Practice and Leadership