From Charlottesville to Lansing, we must tackle racial equity

Added September 29th, 2017 by Pat Sorenson | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Pat Sorenson

Like so many across the country, I struggled with the racism laid bare in Charlottesville. While I was not surprised by its existence, I couldn’t help but recoil from the highly personal nature of the hate language that was heard around the world, and the sense of entitlement with which it was expressed.

ClassroomIt is yet another reminder of how far we have to go in this country and it can feel overwhelming. At times like these, I believe that we all need to find actions that we can take—however small they may appear—to address the deep divides in our country, state and neighborhoods.

At the League, we are scrutinizing state budget and policy decisions to see if they are helping to create more equity for children and families of color or are actually contributing to the problem, even if unintentionally.

What is clear is that state budgets and policies that are “colorblind” can perpetuate pervasive and unacceptable outcomes for the state’s children of color.

One example is the passage in Michigan of a law that allows—under some circumstances—for third-graders to be held back if they are not reading proficiently. The law was well-intentioned. Lawmakers understood the importance of early reading to future school success and adopted a law to focus public schools and resources on the problem of low reading proficiency.

BB-Chart 13However, without sufficient funds to invest in the early years—from birth through third grade—the retention law could actually contribute to growing racial and ethnic disparities. In the 2015-2016 school year, 56% of African-American and 38% of Latino third-graders were not reading proficiently and could have been subject to grade retention if the policy had been implemented that year, compared to 21% of their White peers.

To avoid an inequitable outcome from the third-grade reading bill, state leaders will need to simultaneously provide schools the resources they need to improve reading skills, and address realities outside the classroom that are inexorably tied to student achievement and success in reading, including the well-documented impact of poverty.

So far, too little has been invested to overcome the historical and cumulative impact of discrimination and poverty on children’s ability to learn and achieve. The data show that women of color are more likely to lack access to timely prenatal care, and their children are consequently born too early and too small—increasing their risk of learning problems. Many women of color struggle to find healthy food for their children in the many “healthy food deserts” in both urban and remote rural communities. And, there are big holes in the state’s early learning system—including a shortage of high-quality child care that is affordable.

The reality is that outcomes for children are tied to race, income and zip code, and this must be changed for Michigan to move forward. The state budget is a potent tool for addressing the structural barriers to equity for all children in the state, but its potential won’t be realized until Michigan residents demand it.

— Pat Sorenson

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