Last week, the NC House of Representatives debated a bill (SB295 Standards of Student Conduct) that would remove existing statutory language that prevents school districts from suspending or expelling students for minor behavioral infractions such as dress code violations or using foul language.
The provision being deleted was originally added to our education statutes in 2011. That bill passed unanimously after bipartisan negotiations to craft what was one of the most progressive pieces of school discipline legislation in the country.
Every bill in the General Assembly receives three “readings,” and it must pass by majority vote on second and third readings. Last week, the House of Representatives seemed ready to repeal the 2011 language when the bill passed second reading on a party line vote, with 63 Republicans voting for and 52 Democrats voting against. As a Democrat, I’m used to losing votes in the General Assembly, although it always hurts a little and even more so when I believe the bill will harm my former school students. But after my initial anger and disappointment, I was surprised by what happened before the final vote the next day.
Prior to the second reading vote, the House had debated the bill for about an hour. The arguments were along lines that have deep roots in the history of education policy – people of color and their allies argue against policies that will have disparate negative impacts on their children, and most white lawmakers argue that education policies need to allow local control. The debate was passionate, with moments that left reasoned argument behind in favor of emotional plea. (You can watch the debate here; it starts a little after the 16-minute mark.)
There are education debates in the legislature that don’t break down along racial or political party lines, but it didn’t surprise me that this one did. Frankly, my perspective after the debate was that the Republican majority struggled to understand the perspective of African-American Democrats during this debate, and in my comments on the floor I called for us to do better at communicating with one another across difference.
To my surprise, the conversation changed before the third reading of the bill on the following day. My friend Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican and a white man like me, called me on the night of the second reading vote. He told me that he couldn’t stop thinking about our debate that day. He added that he had been reading the E(race)ing Inequities report and said, “The numbers are clear, we have to do something about this.” I told him that a fellow Democrat was going to run an amendment to remove the section of the bill that was in question. The next day Craig took responsibility for introducing the amendment, after having discussed the issue with the Republican Caucus and their leadership. The amendment passed with a bipartisan majority, and the newly amended bill passed unanimously.
We need the E(race)ing Inequities report so badly because we have lost our common language and will to tackle racial inequities in education. In this case, the report gave Rep. Horn, myself, and others a common reference point to work our way to a better solution. For me, it was a rare moment of feeling like we could work on racial equity issues in the General Assembly, and it made me hungry for more.
During my time in the NC House, the legislature has largely avoided tackling issues of race and education. The House tried earlier this year. I joined Rep. Horn, another Republican, and another Democrat to sponsor a bill that would create an Opportunity Gap Task Force. The bill passed the House unanimously and is awaiting action in the Senate. We need a chance to begin conversations through a study process like the bill proposes, and we need a common data set to work from such as the E(race)ing Inequities report provides.
Talking about race is difficult in any part of our society. I have found it especially difficult to do in the world of policy since so many of our policy frameworks are designed to be color-blind and are likely to privilege already dominant social and economic groups. The current trend in education to begin explicit, proactive conversations about racial equity is creating opportunities for great gains in addressing achievement disparities. Advancement in the field needs to be backed by advancement in policy that helps formalize equity through institutional and structural progress.
In the floor debate on this week’s bill, I joined colleagues in arguing that students need to be in class, not at home and certainly not in our court system. Our goal should be clear: we need policies and practices that maximize the potential of all students. And on that, I believe there is broad bipartisan, cross-racial agreement.
Still, I remain skeptical that my colleagues are suitably committed to interrupting inequities. Interruptions are harder than building something new, after all. Often, politicians only agree to challenge inequities when we face pressure from our constituents. And beyond the lingua franca it provides policymakers, the greatest value of the E(race)ing Inequities report may be the leverage that it provides to external advocates. It is full of data that can be used by the advocates that approach us, and I mean all of us.
I am grateful that Rep. Horn reached across party lines to address this particular equity issue, but I am experienced enough to know that we cannot always rely on legislators or other policymakers to do the right thing. Students, parents, education leaders, and advocates need to organize for equitable schools. Policymakers need to hear your stories and understand your perspectives, and you can strengthen your voice by using statistics that show the patterns we must address.
It’s time for North Carolina to have yet another talk about race and schools. Unfortunately, there’s probably never a time when that conversation is not appropriate. I hope the E(race)ing Inequities report helps us with that conversation. Beyond conversation, I hope that all those who read it will push our policies and practices forward for the good of students.