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Perspective | An ‘E(race)ing’ report to move North Carolina forward

Chart-by-chart, day-by-day over three weeks in August, EducationNC rolled out the findings and analysis of an impressive study of access and outcomes along racial and ethnic lines in K-12 public schools across the state. The report, “E(race)ing Inequities,” combines dispassionate scholarship with a passionate concern for students on the down side of educational gaps.

The report scored an early success in influencing legislation, as state Rep. Graig Meyer reported in a follow-up commentary. Meyer, a Democrat, and state Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican, had read the data on imbalances in school discipline — and they collaborated on a bipartisan amendment to alter a provision that could have made the situation worse by leading to more suspensions and expulsions of students for minor infractions.

The research project was led by James E. Ford, a former state teacher of the year who now serves on the State Board of Education and recently launched the Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED). His inequities-report co-author is Nicholas Triplett, a PhD in urban education who teaches at UNC-Charlotte. The NC Center for Public Policy Research, a component of EducationNC, provided editing and verification of the data.

While achievement gaps between and among white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian students are familiar to educators, policy makers, and citizens, Ford and Triplett make an important contribution to the great education debate in North Carolina by pointing to a “direct link’’ connecting academic achievement to governmental policies and in-school practices. They write that “reforms to policy and practice could ameliorate racial inequity across all indicators we examined.”

In other words, what human beings have wrought human beings can fix. The E(race)ing Inequities analysis especially emphasizes three crucial actions: 1) “equitable access to rigorous coursework,” 2) “intervention to eliminate racialized patterns of school discipline,” and 3) “equitable deployment of experienced, effective, and committed teachers.”

Ford and Triplett stick to their number-crunching. Still, it seems to me, their work leads inescapably to consideration of policy and budgetary choices not specifically addressed within the scope of the report.

The E(race)ing Inequities report does not deal with state and local spending on education. In fact, it spotlights in-school practices and conditions — assigning of teachers, guidance counseling, diminishing the influence of implicit racial attitudes — that do not necessarily require more government spending.

But if more money is not the answer to all the issues raised in the report, surely not enough money would result in North Carolina falling far short in responding to key findings. Schools with concentrations of students in economic distress and English-language learners can no longer remain under-resourced; they require strong financing for staff, curriculum, modern equipment, and faculty. It’s going to take more robust teacher pay raises, as well as a commitment to mentoring, to draw more bright young people, including blacks and Hispanics, into the profession.

The report focuses on K-12, not early childhood. With SmartStart, NC PreK, and child-care quality ratings and subsidy, North Carolina became a national leader in the field. No doubt, the learning and socializing skills obtained in high-quality pre-kindergarten would enhance the readiness for schooling of white children, as well as children of color, from lower-income households. And yet, as SAS CEO Jim Goodnight recently reiterated, NC PreK has no room for more than 30,000 four-year-olds because some counties simply cannot afford the local share of the funding. It’s going to take more state funding to restore North Carolina’s leadership in early childhood education.

There is yet another reason that this project is valuable to North Carolina: It confronts history. The E(race)ing Inequities report was released along with a historical companion piece, titled “Deep Rooted,’’ co-authored by Ford and Ethan Roy, a PhD student at UNC-Greensboro. The timing may have been coincidental, but the two reports arrived at the 400th anniversary of the first delivery of enslaved people into North America in 1619 and as Americans now clash over differences in attitudes toward the nation’s more multi-faceted racial and ethnic demography.

By tracing education in North Carolina from slavery in the colonial period, through the Civil War and Reconstruction, to Jim Crow segregation, then to court-ordered desegregation and into the current period of resegregation, the companion essay offers context for the next stage of public conversation and policy making. No doubt, North Carolina has stronger public education today than in the eras when its policy purposefully denied even barely adequate schools to people of color. Over the past half century, public education, even with its lingering inequities, helped enlarge and strengthen the black middle class.

Perhaps not as heavy as it once was, the weight of history still bears down on North Carolina school children. The E(race)ing Inequities project gives today’s North Carolinians information to guide their exercise of citizenship in  behalf of lifting the weight of history in their time and place.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.