Last Word on Equity & Opportunity

November 2018

By // Howard Fuller, Ph.D.

Professor of Education & Founder of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University

Howard Fuller, Ph.D., is a distinguished professor of education and founder of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University. He is nationally known for his support of education reform and has received many awards and recognition for his work. Fuller is board chair and co-founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and serves on a number of other boards.

As a Black man who has been fighting for social justice for more than five decades, the current conversations about equity in the ongoing effort to re-imagine education in America strike a deep chord.

The one enduring lesson learned from years of struggle is the fight for social justice in this country is a never-ending road with twists and turns, progress and regression; one step forward and two steps backwards. The conversations that are taking place today about equity in the context of trying to change education in America must be viewed through an historical prism.

Clearly there are many dimensions to an equity discussion as it pertains to redefining education, but the focus of this article is racial equity particularly for students from low-income and working-class families, a disproportionate number of whom are Black and Brown.

Dr. Howard Thurman in his book “Jesus and the Disinherited” discussed the plight of the masses of people who live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited and the dispossessed. It is a moral imperative that we radically change America’s systems of education to address their needs and interests. They are the ones for whom equity must become real, not just be the subject of endless theoretical debate and “courageous conversations.”

The problem we face is not the limits of our national wealth. The problem is our national economic priorities, which undermine the democratic liberties that are our national pride.
James Hug

In using the word equity, there is an assumption that people understand the difference between equity and equality. Equity is giving everyone what he or she needs to be successful. The key to this definition is a willingness to ensure that our neediest students get every material and human resource they need in order to get the quality education they deserve. Equality on the other hand would ensure they were treated the same as their most privileged counterparts, which in no way would give them what they need to be successful, particularly if nothing is done to make up for all of the past and current inequities they have endured.

In order to truly help the children from the families of the disinherited, we must go beyond equality and get to equity. To have a chance to be successful, these students do not require the same level of resources — both in and out of school – as the children of their more privileged counterparts. They require MORE resources. For example, those of us who support equity could not celebrate additional money being put into the federal Charter School Program if the funds to do so would be taken out of Title One allocations. We could not be happy with a federal voucher program that is funded by reducing allocations set aside to fund programs that would feed hungry families or guarantee health care for our poorest children.

The fact is equity for these children will require more and better paid and trained educators, more health care services, more resources for trauma-informed teaching and learning strategies, more resources so they can live in homes that are fit for human beings to inhabit, more resources so their families will have employment that provides living wages, more resources so that they are not totally dependent on schools to provide them with healthy meals. We will need to ensure that they live in homes and communities where violence is not an accepted way of life; where they leave home for school and do not have to worry if they will suffer the fate of Tamir Rice at the hands of those who allegedly were sworn to protect them.

In many ways the issues cited above go to the heart of “opportunity” or the lack thereof for certain individuals and families in America. For example, in talking about the use of the “achievement gap” language to describe learning gaps between black students and white students in America, Dr. Camika Royal stated, “The term ‘achievement gap’ is inaccurate because it blames the historically marginalized, under-served victims of poor schooling and holds whiteness and wealth as models of excellence. And, as with all misnomers, the thinking that undergirds the achievement gap only speaks of academic outcomes, not the conditions that led to those outcomes, nor does it acknowledge that the outcomes are a consequence of those conditions.”

There can be no equity without addressing those conditions and the lack of opportunity that is both historical and contemporary.
Howard Fuller, Ph.D.

Clearly, just asking for more resources is not sufficient. We must work diligently to make sure that resources that are currently available are being used wisely and efficiently. But it is simply lunacy to act as if we can seriously talk about equity and, at the same time, deny the need for additional money, people and whatever else is needed for the children from disinherited families.

I am perfectly aware that there are forces in our country that don’t even want to discuss these issues, to say nothing about dealing with them. For some these ideas are “too liberal” or “mushy.”

Some would say that we simply don’t have the resources to do these things. I agree with a man named James Hug, who years ago said, “The problem we face is not the limits of our national wealth. The problem is our national economic priorities, which undermine the democratic liberties that are our national pride.”

The resources are there; what is not there is the political will to use those resources for the people who need them the most. The fact is the children that are the subject of this article are not a priority for the body politic writ large of this country.

It is hard to envision an America where equity for our poorest children will actually happen. But Derrick Bell’s words still ring true: “Whomever amongst us that truly believe in equity for our poorest children not to fight for it is co-signing on the injustice.”

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