Imagine that a state school board passed a resolution adopting “liberty” as their educational framework, pledged to “review and appropriately revise its policies using a liberty lens”, and created a “liberty officer” who was given unspecified power to ensure that every group achieved “liberty” in their educational outcomes.
Parents would, understandably, be alarmed. They would ask questions like: how precisely is “liberty” being defined? Will there be any public oversight of the “liberty officer”? What will be the checks and balances to his or her power? If the entire public school systems adopts “liberty” as a framework, then what role will “education” play? Are there any constraints to what can or will be done in the name of “liberty”?
If this scenario sounds far-fetched, substitute the word “equity” for the word “liberty” and you’ll arrive at an actual resolution that the NC state school board is currently considering. Below, I’ll parse the language of the document to show why parents and educators should indeed be concerned and why they should press the school board to vote down this resolution, or at least to radically overhaul it.
What Is Equity?
Equity is a buzzword in education today, with numerous major school systems committing to incorporate it into their curriculum. If you consult the dictionary, “equity” means “the quality of being fair and impartial,” something that no parent or educator would dream of opposing. Given this definition, it’s natural to assume that “equity” is merely a synonym of “equality.”
However, when used in the context of contemporary education, activism, and public policy, “equity” generally means something very different. For example, the Glossary for Education Reform states that
While it is often used interchangeably with the related principle of equality, equity encompasses a wide variety of educational models, programs, and strategies that may be considered fair, but not necessarily equal. It is has been said that “equity is the process; equality is the outcome,” given that equity—what is fair and just—may not, in the process of educating students, reflect strict equality—what is applied, allocated, or distributed equally.
A very popular image commissioned by the Interaction Institute for Social Change illustrates the difference between equality and equity.
Note that “equality” entails giving all three people equal resources but leads to an undesirable outcome while “equity” produces a desirable outcome by recognizing that some people require formally unequal resources to offset their disadvantages.
How Does The Resolution Understand “Equity”?
At first glance, the NC resolution appears to be defining equity in terms of equality of opportunity. It maintains that the NC constitution legally obligates them to “ensure equity, demanding ‘equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.'” Elsewhere, it explicitly defines “educational equity” as “the belief and practice of ensuring that every student is treated in a fair and just manner” and even says “equity is equality of opportunity.”
Yet despite these statements, the resolution mentions in passing that “punitive disciplinary practices, lack of access to and supports for teachers of color, unequal access to educational opportunities and supports, implicit and explicit biases, and segregation perpetuate inequity in the outcomes of students.” This statement should give the reader pause. If equity means “equality of opportunity,” then presumably inequity means “inequality of opportunity.” Yet how can outcomes be inequitable if equity refers to opportunity, not to outcome?
Indeed, since the document insists that the NC constitution already commits the state to providing “equality of opportunity,” then this entire resolution is irrelevant and unnecessary, unless equity does not actually mean “equality of opportunity.” Only if the document’s framers actually understand “equity” to mean something more than mere “equality of opportunity” does the existence of this resolution make sense.
What Would It Take?
Even if we table the question of how exactly the word “equity” is being used, we can ask: what would an equity framework require practically? According to the document, treating students in a “fair and just” manner involves “eliminating discriminatory barriers to full participation and opportunities for every student.” These barriers include “systematic racism, poverty, poor health, unsafe environments, nutrition deficiencies, [and] limited access to services and infrastructure needed to support their long-term health and safety.”
A moment’s reflection shows the breath-taking magnitude of this assertion. If equity demands that we remove barriers like “poverty” and “unsafe environments”, imagine the kind of power that will have to be granted to the school system and -specifically- to the equity officer, to achieve these goals. How precisely can any school system eliminate the barriers of poverty or poor health? And since it obviously can’t, will the pursuit of “equity” simply be used as an excuse to divert more and more power and resources to an office committed to an unattainable goal?
Here, questions of oversight and accountability become extremely important. The resolution calls us to reorient the school system around an “equity framework.” Yet the “equity officer” is the only individual charged with “ensur[ing] consistency and continuity with this essential guiding principle inside and outside the agency.” Effectively, this approach invests a single individual with the tremendous power of determining which policies are and are not consistent with what is now the “essential guiding principle” of the school system – equity. Even if we think that “equity” (whatever it is) is a noble goal, we dare not entrust any one person with this kind of tremendous power, absent any checks or balances.
The language and overall thrust of this resolution is concerning. No doubt, parents, teachers, and board members are already whole-heartedly committed to proving a high-quality public education and are passionate about ensuring equality of opportunity for every student, as mandated by the state constitution. Yet this document demands something quite different. If the board members believe that students should be treated unequally to ensure equality of outcome, they should say so explicitly.
Without question, some unequal treatment is compatible with justice and fairness, as when we provide extra resources and tutoring to students with learning disabilities or free lunches to students experiencing poverty. Yet other unequal treatment is unjust and unfair, as when -to our shame- North Carolina spent decades discriminating against students of color. If the school board is proposing that we shift our entire education system to a framework that prioritizes equal outcome over equal treatment, it will have to draw very clear lines to ensure that in the pursuit of justice, it doesn’t inscribe injustice on the heart of our educational system. This resolution draws no such lines, and should therefore be viewed with extreme skepticism.