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Dialogue on Race/NAACP: Equity work in Montgomery County schools must continue

First day of school

Students arrive at Eastern Montgomery Elementary School in Elliston on the first day of school in fall 2021.

Access to free public education is an essential right of all children and a critical requirement to develop “productive and responsible citizens,” the mission of Montgomery County Public Schools.

But access alone, the opportunity to attend school, is not sufficient. According to the Code of Virginia, school boards, with community involvement, are required to develop a comprehensive plan with “the objectives of the school division, including strategies for first improving student achievement, particularly the achievement of educationally at-risk students, then maintaining high levels of student achievement.”

To meet Virginia’s high achievement expectations for all students, divisions must plan for more than access; they must plan for equitable access.

Montgomery County students are fortunate to be educated in a division that “[is] committed to equity as a priority in all decisions” and “will intentionally address the needs of all individuals so that each person can achieve their maximum potential.” These commitments to equity are explicitly stated in the MCPS Strategic Plan 2021-2026 developed by a planning team of 151 teachers, staff, students, parents, and community members and approved unanimously by the school board on Dec. 1, 2020.

As community organizations working for equity in education, we support the MCPS Strategic Plan and its commitment to equitable outcomes for all students through the implementation of its equity principles:

Impartiality: Ensure equal treatment of all, regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, culture, gender, gender identity, and other protected group status.

Opportunity: Eliminate barriers and obstacles by providing needed resources through planned, systemic strategies that focus on the core of teaching and learning.

Access: Ensure that all individuals have the same rigorous educational standards, quality programs, and tiered supports.

Sense of Belonging: Promote social and emotional well-being and ensure individuals have the ability to self-advocate and influence decisions affecting them.

We are writing in support of equity now because equity work is threatened by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Executive Order One and the 30-day Interim Report which rescinds equity resources from the Department of Education website.

The Interim Report, written by Secretary of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, interprets equity to be an “inherently divisive concept” in violation of the 14th Amendment and the 1964 Civil Rights Act which establishes the “principles of equal protection and nondiscrimination.”

One concept in Executive Order One implies equity work discriminates against individuals or causes them to “receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith.”

As Amy Tillerson-Brown, chair of the Virginia NAACP Education Committee stated, “None of the resources Secretary Balow requested be rescinded or modified are discriminatory in that they do not promote unjust or prejudicial treatment based on race or gender. Instead, these recommendations will work to unravel the progress our Commonwealth has made towards racial equity in education.”

We affirm our commitment to the success of every student and to the Montgomery County Public Schools equity work that strives to ensure learning outcomes are not affected by circumstances outside the control of students, such as race, gender, ZIP code, ability, socio-economic status, and/or languages spoken at home, all students in the population referred to as “at risk” in the Code of Virginia.

We believe MCPS equity work is not in violation of Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but instead, shows a strong adherence to the standards of the Act.

Educational equity does not promote unjust or prejudicial treatment, nor does seeking equitable outcomes for all students reduce the opportunities for any student or lower expectations or achievement outcomes.

Educational equity does:

Increase opportunities for English Language Learners, students with special needs, children experiencing trauma or persistent poverty, and students of color who confront unconscious biases.

Look at policies and procedures to see if they create barriers to student achievement and success and change them as needed.

Provide professional opportunities for administrators, teachers, and staff to understand how some policies and practices have adversely and disproportionately affected students.

Provide instructional practices and procedures that are supportive and inclusive.

We are writing in support of MCPS equity work and in opposition to the explicit actions recommended in the 30-day Interim Report because we do not want to see equity work in education curtailed. Equity enables all students to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally, first in classrooms and later in communities and society. It enables all students to become productive and responsible citizens.

The authors of this commentary are all retired educators and Montgomery County residents.

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