Poor Whites Just Realized They Need Education Equity as Much as Black Folk

Poor and working-class whites have been getting more attention than resources lately — just as black folk have for generations.

The time couldn’t be better to push an equity agenda.

“My fellow chiefs and I are making equity a priority of our work,” said South Dakota Secretary of Education Melody Schopp in her address last month to a national convening of the CCSSO. The Council of Chief State School Officers is a membership organization comprised of the top education leaders of each state.

The think tank Aspen Institute and CCSSO published “Leading for Equity: Opportunities for State Education Chiefs,” a paper that outlines 10 commitments by state education officials to improve equity. And states have the ability to act. As school superintendents implement the complex new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, they have the freedom that ESSA provides to promote equity in their state.

Join the conversation later on Andre Perry’s radio show, “Free College,” hosted Tuesdays on WBOK1230 in New Orleans at 3pm Central/4pm Eastern 504.260.9265.

But not saying the word “equity” is a pretty good sign that you’re not for it. Consequently, state leaders can’t rely on U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — who seemingly has a hard time uttering the word — to support their equity agenda.

On the same day as the CCSSO meeting, DeVos gave two speeches (one of them to CCSSO) and the word “equity” did not feature in her prepared remarks for either of them.

Republicans ought to have learned that Donald Trump won the presidency partially by repudiating the greed, elitism and callousness of the Republican establishment represented by the swamp he promised to drain. After losing the presidential election, Democrats gnashed their teeth and rended their garments trying to figure out ways to win back working-class white folk.

Well, all working-class lives matter. And the call for equity in schooling can be a rallying cry for people who vote differently but face a common problem — not getting an education that will help lift them to the middle class.

Related: Dear Mr. Governor: How you can help poor kids in Louisiana go to college

In its paper, CCSSO defines equity in education as students not being limited by their circumstances with regard to “the resources and educational rigor necessary for success.”

To reach this lofty goal, members of CCSSO committed to the 10 actions detailed in “Leading for Equity,” such as holding themselves accountable to equity goals, providing tailored support to local districts and investments in early childhood. These actions seem deliberately designed to appeal to both political parties, including strategies that have been suggested by free-market conservatives and that blue-dog Democrats have utilized in the past.

But if state officials really want to advance equity, then they will need outside assistance, because unlike the word “choice,” “equity” isn’t a term bandied about by most Republicans. And saying you will provide school choice through charters or a cheap voucher to a low-performing school isn’t the same as giving schools that low-income families attend the resources needed for success.

For the religious DeVos, “equity” seemingly qualifies as profanity. But her muteness is really a symptom of political polarization and racism. Like DeVos, most Republicans reject equity — probably because Democrats, and black and brown civil rights organizations, have embraced it. On the other side of the aisle, Dems throw the word around as if saying it three times in a row will magically give them a majority in the House and Senate. But we need to work together to uplift all Americans, no matter who they vote for. That’s why despite having a supermajority, Republicans still need some help from Democrats in providing equity to their conservative constituents.

Related: Stop condemning high schools for college graduation rates

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of March 2017, Republications controlled 32 state legislatures — meaning they had a majority of seats — compared to Democrats with 14. Three legislatures were split or tied, and one is nonpartisan. Republicans, who hold 52 senate seats, are the majority party in the 115th Congress. Democrats hold 46 seats and there are two independents, both of whom caucus with Democrats.

This poses a unique opportunity for organizations that are willing to serve poor folk. Organizations that can say poor whites need equity as much as low-income black folk are better equipped to deliver on the CCSSO’s agenda.

In very simple terms, Republicans can utilize left-leaning groups who know and believe in equity.

School superintendents have read the tea leaves; they know they need to act. Apart from the racism, poor white folk have been treated like poor black people for decades and they are just starting to realize it. Now they just need to be able to say, no, shout the word “equity.” Their representatives won’t have any choice but to listen.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.

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