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If we can’t talk about racism in education, how will we address racial inequity in education?

Advancing racial equity is central to ensuring every student in North Carolina has a sound basic education, particularly given the shifting racial demographics in our state. Earlier this year, Education First facilitated a community of practice (CoP) that included leaders across the state in discussion about private funding in public education with a focus on racial equity. As we concluded our meetings in the spring, national and statewide discussions which aim to regulate how racism and antiracism are taught (e.g., regarding critical race theory) in public schools had begun to impact how we talk about racism in education. This means it is important, now more than ever, to stay focused on advancing discussions about racial equity in education.

Even though North Carolina House Bill 324, which “directed public schools not to compel students to affirm or profess belief in several discriminatory concepts with a particular focus on race and racism”, was vetoed by Governor Cooper in September, the impact of the proposed bill is still being felt. For example, local school boards are still developing policies that limit discussions about race. In Johnston County earlier this year, based on pressure from county commissioners who threatened to withhold millions of dollars in funding, board members recently passed a policy about teaching racism and history that says, “all people who contributed to American society will be recognized and presented as reformists, innovators and heroes to our culture”. Additionally, influential legislators are now misusing the conversations about critical race theory to advocate for preventing discussions about racism in the classroom. According to a recent article, LT Governor Mark Robinson plans to “continue fighting against the indoctrination of students in his state” and expressed concerns about the anti-American sentiment in many of our curriculums “when it comes to discussions about race”.  

Sadly, school boards engaging in heated debates about race and policymakers using critical race theory as the premise to limit discussions about racism has now become the norm in many states including North Carolina. The danger is this—if we cannot talk about racism in education, how then will we address racial inequity in education? Given the current political climate, this will require diligence now more than ever. Our discussions with leaders in the community of practice earlier this year about racial equity and private funding in public education surfaced a few lessons learned that are important to consider as we keep the conversation about racial equity in education front and center:

  • Our state context matters. It is important not to underestimate the work required to support practitioners and funders who focus on racial equity as they navigate the politically sensitive climate in North Carolina. 
  • Being explicit about keeping race on the table is critical. The focus on race and racial equity can become lost if funders, educators and education leaders do not have specific strategies for how to prioritize it.
  • The Leandro case—which centers on North Carolina’s mandate to provide every child with a sound, basic education—is promising as a lever for collective action. The policies and programs that Leandro aims to address can act as entry points for funders, educators and education leaders to find shared opportunities for impact on racial equity and racial justice. 
  • There are racialized funding implications in North Carolina that funders can help address. Counties that are unable to realize adequate education revenue through insufficient public funding and serve large communities of students of color can benefit from private dollars. However, this should be done with a clear understanding that private dollars do not address the scale of the need and are not a long-term solution. 
  • Educators and education leaders play a critical role in the use of private dollars for public education. Educators and education leaders need more opportunities to advocate on behalf of their communities—particularly communities of color—to determine the best use of grant funds, and evaluate grantmaking strategies and practices. 

As political conversations about education and race continue across the country, I am encouraged by the fact that I continue to see efforts underway to keep a focus on racial equity in education here in North Carolina, especially during these politically fraught times. Mapping the Movement for Racial Equity in Education captures the great work that has long been happening across North Carolina to promote racial equity and eliminate structural racism in our educational system and beyond. It reflects a network of organizations engaged in this work across the state in order to highlight the efforts that are already underway, especially those that are centering and being led by communities of color.

Here at Education First we believe in equitable opportunities for all, and are especially committed to working to support students whose opportunities have historically been underserved or denied. The clients and partners we work with share this belief. We must not allow the misleading discourse about critical race theory to deter efforts to confront and address racial inequities in education. Our students are looking to the adults to make decisions that result in the best possible educational experience each student can receive. Using a racial equity lens helps us do just that. 

Please contact Rashidah Lopez Morgan and Andy Smith for more information about the North Carolina Social Impact and Racial Equity in Education Community of Practice.

This is part two of a three-part blog series based on our work with the North Carolina Racial Equity and Social Impact Community of Practice. Education First worked closely with Gita Gulati-Partee, Founder & Principal of OpenSource Leadership Strategies, on this engagement and this project was sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the Conway Family Fund.

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Rashidah Lopez Morgan

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