74 Interview: Education Advocate Juontel White on Schools’ Enduring Inequalities 69 Years After Brown v. Board
Dr. Juontel White delves into how racial inequities continue to impact K-12 school funding, high-stakes testing and curriculum instruction post-Brown
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From school funding to high-stakes testing, Dr. Juontel White believes racial inequities persist in K-12 education as a result of decisions made following the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
White, the senior vice president of programs and advocacy for the Schott Foundation for Public Education, explored this through her contribution to The Ira A. Lipman Center’s Uncovering Inequality — a research project that dissects racial justice issues in education, housing, criminal justice, health and economics.
“We’re seeing an increasing narrative that we do have racial equality in our nation,” White told The 74. “I want to lift up this entire report as a counter to that prevailing and pervasive narrative.”
White’s research delves into how the promise of Brown v. Board of Education — a historic decision by the U.S. Supreme Court declaring racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional — has not been fulfilled.
In addition, White noted that there are new ways racial integration has been repealed post-Brown as schools recover from pandemic learning loss.
“One of the key takeaways is that Brown’s promise has not been fulfilled, and there are new ways inequality is not only surfacing but also re-entrenching,” White said. “We’re seeing some of the opportunities from Brown in the integration of curriculum be repealed based on interests of the political right.”
“When we have examples like the racial identity of Rosa Parks extracted from our curriculum, we are being regressed into something that is steps before Brown,” White said.
The goal of White’s research is to show how the state of K-12 education speaks to the broader conversation of America’s racialized society.
“Racial inequality not only exists, but in every layer of our society there’s opportunity and necessity for us to enact a solution,” White said.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your research centers around how the state of school funding, high-stakes testing and curriculum instruction today are as a result of the policies and practices made post-Brown. Tell me more about this and how racial inequities continue to persist in K-12 education.
When we took up the question posed about how racial inequality exists in our present day K-12 education system, we cannot do that separate from understanding what happened post-Brown. The very structure of contemporary K-12 education rests on the approach, or attempt, to fulfill the promise of Brown. When we begin to unpack its potential, its design and the resulting policies that came after Brown, it is then that we get to see the ways that inequality endures in our K-12 education.
Thinking about the contemporary ways inequality persists is seminal in the education sphere because it’s not just one of the biggest policy restructurings in education, but by design it was intended to address racial inequality. So there was no question of whether or not to start with Brown because of that frame by which it was shaped in the mainstream to really undo this unequal system, unequal funding, unequal facilities and all of the things that segregated schools had endemic to their nature. So noting that we’re in a contemporary society where racial inequality has persisted, let’s fill in the gap between those two bookmarks.
As schools recover from pandemic learning loss, how does your research speak to the disparities of students of color?
The majority of students of color are attending schools, often in urban districts, that are under-resourced in terms of their class sizes, teacher turnover and limited teaching resources. When you’re in an under-resourced school, especially Title I schools, there is support for students based on various needs. Whether students are unhoused or receiving free or reduced lunch, there are services provided through schools so they can get breakfast, lunch etc. As we think about them post-COVID when schools were shut down, there were students who were experiencing the squeeze — especially within those first couple of months. There were some schools that had to really ramp up what it would look like to ensure students had food to eat. And we felt that squeeze especially for students of color to just get basic needs.
You also have the digital divide. It wasn’t an easy shift for students to just go home and hop on a computer to engage in their classrooms. So much of the world went to Zoom-landia and that wasn’t so easy for your average student of color who either had limited technology — whether that be a laptop, phone or tablet — and/or sufficient internet to get onto those platforms. During the pandemic when a lot of industries were able to shift to remote work, there were also essential workers and many others who were still going in-person. So there was this squeeze for students of color to engage with the technology while also having limited parent support.
And then there was an overwhelming impact for students of color to get through their classwork. As the pandemic shook and shut down the world, one in three or four students of color experienced a close loved one pass away. That’s a lot of children over the last few years that are not just experiencing the squeeze of a new format of education, but also having lost people who’ve raised them. So when we think about the impact of the pandemic, there’s a particular effect on not just learning laws, but also the social-emotional aspects that absolutely had an effect on the educational outcomes of all students — and certainly for students of color.
What would you say is a key piece of your research readers should take the most away from?
There’s a lot and it’s hard to whittle down. We took stock to identify those key areas you’ve named in terms of high-stakes testing, curriculum instruction, etc. So in each of those areas, I do think there’s a key point. To zoom out, solutions are both needed and possible. We need equitable state and local policies in the education sector in order to shift all of these key areas named in the report. But we also need folks to understand the key learnings in this.
One key learning is that inequality has endured since Brown v. Board of Education. We’re seeing an increasing narrative that we do have racial equality in our nation. There’s this counter narrative that it already exists, so why are we attempting to put in different practices and policies that would advance equity? I want to lift up this entire report as a counter to that prevailing and pervasive narrative. It is true that inequality has endured, we do not have a panacea, and all levels of society — both political and individual — are required.
Systemic change does not get resolved by one shot policies. There are multiple and they’re persistent because of how entrenched racial inequality is in our society. So at every level of our K-12 education system, both opportunity and a necessity for action is needed in order for equity to be achieved and realized. So that is the key takeaway. It is that racial inequality not only exists, but in every layer of our society there’s opportunity and necessity for us to enact a solution.
What is something nobody has asked you yet about your research?
People often ask what can be done and what does this mean for educators. But so far, I have yet to hear about what communities and students themselves can do. There’s opportunities for policy changes and districts to use their voice to shape who is selected on school boards. However, mobilization and organizing are not just local needs. Using their voice at the state level is needed to ensure legislators are giving schools resources at the level they need so students can thrive.
There’s also ways parents need to be supported when addressing learning loss. Parents and families are often overlooked and seen as marginal to the education system. But they’re absolutely core, their voice matters and they have agency. So that is something I want to lift up when thinking about how we see educational inequality.
Parents, families and students themselves have agency to really be co-constructors in the type of educational experience they need. They’re the closest to it and they have the voice to really answer what it is that they want and need. So giving space for that and having them empowered to know that is beyond important.
Taking note of the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, how should educators, researchers, policymakers, journalists, etc. apply your research to their work today?
One of the key takeaways is that Brown’s promise has not been fulfilled, and there are new ways inequality is not only surfacing but also re-entrenching. We’re seeing some of the opportunities from Brown in the integration of curriculum be repealed based on interests of the political right. When we have examples like the racial identity of Rosa Parks extracted from our curriculum, we are being regressed into something that is steps before Brown.
By design, all levels of our K-12 education system are Eurocentric and explicitly racist. So when we’re at a place where we can’t even name the histories and heroines and heroes for communities of color, we are going back to a place pre-Brown. Whether you’re a policymaker, teacher, principal or whomever, if you understand how we are repressing some of the earliest civil rights gains in education I think that is the powerful takeaway. It’s a key takeaway when it comes to curriculum, when we think about high-stakes testing and absolutely when we dive into school funding.
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