In the past two weeks, the realities that millions of Americans of color face every day — realities that are consciously and unconsciously condoned by the majority — have come into sharp focus in a way that, we hope, can no longer be ignored.

This barrage of incidents has come to light, not because they are novel or new, but because they have been videotaped for the world to see. The killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. The killing of Ahmaud Arbery, for jogging while black. The weaponizing of white privilege in Central Park.  

In addition, there is the magnifying effect that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on long-standing inequities in health and education. A disproportionate share of those who die of the virus are African-American and children of color are disproportionately left behind in the transition to remote learning.

Lisa Weil and Lea Steed

The pandemic has also created a severe state budget crisis that is forcing deep and crippling cuts to exactly those education and health care services intended to address and reverse those long-standing inequities.

At this long-overdue moment of national self-reflection, we must finally identify and address the many pernicious forms of racism that hide in plain sight every day in America and in Colorado.

Sadly, many of those practices and structures afflict Colorado’s classrooms. Whether the result of conscious or unconscious decisions, and despite the intentional efforts of many, examples of white privilege and systemic racism abound in the field of education: The vast majority of white children have the benefit of being taught most of the time by people who have the same racial and cultural experience that they do. Children of color do not. 

In fact, it is not rare for children of color to graduate from high school having had only a handful of diverse teachers. This is a tragedy and a lost opportunity, as research demonstrates that having a teacher of color makes a significant difference in academic and social outcomes for all students and especially for students of color.  

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White students are more likely to benefit from high expectations, experienced educators, and advanced coursework than their black and brown peers, too often establishing a negative academic spiral.

White students get the benefit of the doubt more often; black children are expelled and suspended at rates several times higher than white children for the same behavior.

White students are more likely to hear “We shouldn’t ruin his record because of one mistake,” while a black child is more likely to hear “He has to learn to follow the rules.” 

White children experience a curriculum that presents role models, historical figures and fictional protagonists who look like they do — and not just during one month of the year. Their history is portrayed with breadth, nuance and depth, not as a one-dimensional, sanitized and inaccurate story of victimization.

White educators work in school structures and cultures created within a dominant white culture. Black educators have to navigate structures with unwritten rules and expectations, with implicit bias baked in.

And underlying it all, schools attended by mostly students of color are funded at lower levels on average than schools in which the majority of students are white.

All of this is no surprise. Schools reflect our society, as much as they shape it.  Eradicating institutional racism in our education system won’t be simple or easy.

It will require commitment from all of us as well as significantly more resources, in order to improve the diversity of our teaching force, make teaching a profession that can support a family (and offset the disproportionately high student debt burden experienced by black graduates), provide extensive and ongoing cultural competency and implicit bias training for employees and other stakeholders, eliminate racial bias from curriculum and teaching practices, and increase academic, social and emotional supports for students from marginalized communities.

It will also require meaningful and ongoing engagement with parents, students and representatives from diverse communities in deciding how those resources will be used to most effectively improve the lives of diverse students. Such inclusive budgeting practices would implement one of the fundamental principles of dismantling racist systems: “Nothing about us without us.”

All of these steps must be taken if we are to successfully reform our educational system to create more equitable opportunities and outcomes. If we are serious, we need to be ready to invest. If, instead, we stand by as school funding is slashed, we can be certain that the greatest toll of those cuts will once again be felt by students of color.

This moment can be an inflection point for Colorado. We must not let the urgency for action dissipate with the next news cycle, nor let Colorado’s COVID-created budgetary crisis derail the potential for progress. 

Will we look back on 2020 as the year that we finally came together as a people and a state to end systemic racism? It’s up to us. Right now.

Lisa Weil is Executive Director and Lea Steed is the Director of Equity Matters for Great Education Colorado, a statewide organization that advocates for adequate, equitable and sustainable funding of public education.

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