Equity session

Equity session

Equality and equity are not synonyms – and why board members need to know the difference

Kentucky School Advocate
March 2017
 
By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff writer
A Washington state school board member who studies equity issues in public education laid out a game plan to encourage Kentucky boards to use an “equity lens” in the work they do in their districts.

Equity and equality are different concepts, Tukwila school board member Mary Fertakis explained in a KSBA pre-conference training session: Equality gives everyone the same thing, but it only works if everyone starts from the same place. Equity gives access to the same opportunities and must be ensured before equality can be enjoyed. “Giving people what they need is what equity is about,” she said.
 
Daviess County school board member Tom Payne, left, and Paducah Independent 
board Vice Chairman Felix Akojie follow up with presenter Mary Fertakisfollowing her
pre-conference session on Framing the Equity Conversation for Today and Our Future. 

The two terms are often mistakenly used interchangeably, even by legislators, said Fertakis, who also is a consultant to the National School Boards Association.

The distinction is important for boards who want to address the issue through policy and in the allocation of resources throughout the district. “All of this impacts what we do with space, time, people, dollars,” she said. “So the question we have to ask policy people is, is it more fair to treat people equally or recognize the differential need, differences, and allocate resources to compensate for that.”

To understand current inequities, it’s important to understand Kentucky’s history, Fertakis said. She reviewed the state’s racial history, starting with its first constitution that contained provisions protecting slave ownership, and subsequent constitutions that continued those protections in overt ways and in less overt ways that produced the same effect. The summary included Jim Crow laws, laws reinforcing racial segregation in public schools and controlling movement of blacks, and other laws designed to criminalize and incarcerate so as to commit African Americans to involuntary labor. This pattern also encompasses urban renewal that destroyed black communities.
“It’s incredibly important for our students to be taught this information,” said Jefferson County school board member Lisa Willner. All students need this “common understanding,” she said, after hearing the historical background.

Kentucky’s racial past outlined, Fertakis moved to the present, with state Department of Education data showing the educational and disciplinary gaps between white and minority students, along with socioeconomic data from other sources. (See charts). The data, she said, “should all be proportional to what your population is,” which is not the case in Kentucky.

When boards begin examining and addressing equity issues, they need to be aware of potential pushback in a phenomenon known as “margin of perceived competitive advantage,” Fertakis advised.
“What this means is people will give a lot of lip service to equity until it means that those kids are competing with their kids. And you will get a lot of pushback from your affluent parents on this,” she said.

Fertakis’ presentation, said Clark County board member Scott Hisle, “emphasized how much we as board members need to be aware of perhaps unintentional biases that exist in all of our interactions.

“I think we need, once we acknowledge that there are those unintentional biases, then we need to factor that into our decision-making process, to try to perhaps put forward policies that would offset that. And I think that drives back to her concept of the difference between equity and equality.”

In an interview after her pre-conference session, Fertakis said she hopes board members will start equity conversations in their districts. “And every board member is going to have a different access point because of the local context that they’re coming from, but every single one of our school districts around the country has equity issues. We have disparities; they’re going to look different, but they’re there.”

Raising awareness, she said, “is curative,” and boards can work forward from there, starting with examining district data.

“Don’t take just the surface high-level data,” Fertakis advised. “Peel the onion – what’s going on underneath there. Because it’s only through that that you’re going to see what your root causes are, so you can start driving resources out to address the disparities that are identified there. So data is absolutely foundational, but again, being able to put it in that historical context and understanding that this is why your data looks the way it does so you can start moving forward. Because if we don’t understand what the roots are, we’re not going to be able to actually address it – we’re going to be putting a Band-Aid on something instead of digging it up, disrupting it and changing it.”
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