Education, General, Policy, Staff Highlights

Bettering Our Future Requires Understanding Our Past

Jonathan Briggs wrote this piece for NPGo as part of our recognition and celebration of Black History Month.

By Jonathan Briggs, Policy Manager, America Forward

February 22, 2022

Growing up on the Southside of Chicago, my family and I navigated treacherous terrain when deciding where to send me for school. Chicago has several public school options, from selective enrollment, lottery, public charter, and “neighborhood” schools. Many students and families like mine faced a challenge of access and equitya system where education quality is drastically unequal based on where you live. This experience was my first introduction to the educational inequities that persist in our education system. And it confirmed my commitment to education equity and the belief that every child deserves access to a fair and equal education regardless of their zip code.

Later as a near-peer mentor with City Year Chicago, I learned more about educational inequity first-hand, this time from an educator’s perspective. Many of my students came from low-income homes in the neighborhood. Their stories were reminiscent of challenges many of my childhood peers faced, but also uniquely different. For example, the peeling paint and crusted-up drywallwhich I was all but certain contained asbestoslined the borders of many walls throughout the school building. There were limited textbooks for students, and teachers often printed out packets for classwork and homework. The apparent lack of funding meant that social workers and school counselors were not readily available to address the enormous amount of adversity students faced daily, and, with the majority of funding for public schools coming from property taxes that just weren’t there, the vacant homes that lined the streets weren’t just an illustration of poverty but a metaphor for what one could expect in the school building. 

According to the Center for Educational Equity, adequate funding helps to curb opportunity gaps that persist in low-income minority school districts, raises high school completion rates and strengthens our workforce by boosting student outcomes. Continued underfundingand even deeper cutsexacerbate the opportunity gap, that is, unless the federal government provides adequate funding to schools. This adversity has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, putting students at greater risk. A 2020 GAO report identified that 54% of public school districts are in need of updates or replacements for their buildings system. An estimated 41% of school districts reported needing to update their HVAC systems for at least half of their schools. These infrastructure challenges are even more pronounced in low-income districts that have fewer resources at their disposal. 

As an educator in Kansas City, MO, I realized the inequities that my students faced were identical to what I had witnessed in Chicago. As I had learned in Chicago, educational attainment inequities revolved mostly around inadequate funding. I realized that if schools were to get better, it would start with adequately addressing the significant funding gaps that exist for many districts. It so happened that as I began my time working in the governor’s office in Illinois, a massive and historic funding bill was in the process of being finalized. This bill adopted an evidence-based funding system, increasing funding by $350M each year, with districts furthest below the adequate funding threshold receiving priority. The shifts that took place with this funding bill were a bicameral and bipartisan success that required all hands on deck and prioritizing the needs of schools and students over political expediency. 

And adequate funding is just one piece of the puzzle. I can remember looking into my 5th graders eyes, listening to their stories, and beginning to understand that what happened in my classroom was not enough. It dawned on me that the work I did as an educator was just one part of a system that steers and guides young people, for better or worse. Through their stories, I witnessed the status quo that favors those with access to resources and wealth and punishes those without; a broken system. 

Angela, a former student of mine, comes to mind. She and her twin were both students in my fifth-grade class. I had noticed Angela struggling to complete homework, and I wanted an answer as to why. She informed me of her responsibilities at home: having to take care of her younger siblings while her mother worked until 4 a.m.. She discussed how her mother, who I was aware was formerly incarcerated, had difficulty finding a well-paying job. The felony conviction her mother acquired was one that plagues many low-income and Black and Brown communities, a fleeting remnant of “tough-on-crime” laws like the 1994 Crime Bill. It prohibited her and communities of people like her, from actively engaging in the workforce. Her mother was subjected to minimum wage, fast-food jobs while being expected to adequately provide for a family of four. And this forced Angela to choose between her family and studies. 

These experiences informed me firsthand that the educationand I’ll add workforcesystems need an overhaul; and that means not just centering data and evaluation, but also centering the voices of students, parents, and community members. Policies need to be more inclusive and reflective of the experiences that everyday Americans navigate, particularly communities of color that suffer the consequences of inequitable policies most severely. We need our education and workforce systems to address the many disparate needs of students and workers, offering a path to upward mobility, post-secondary success and sustainable, well-paid career paths. We need policy solutions that ensure all students receive a transformational education and on-ramps toward financial security and economic mobility. 

This pandemic has no doubt highlighted that the families of low-income students and students of color are disproportionately impacted. Many parents and caregivers in these same communities are considered front-line workers, and the lack of child care has, and continues to significantly impact their ability to work. Black and Brown women, in particular, were the beneficiaries of consequential policies that excluded women disproportionately from the workforce. And families of students who already faced significant barriers found themselves without the necessary materials to succeed in remote learning environments. Many students and teachers struggled to gain access to safe and reliable high-speed Internet services at a time when connectivity was so crucial. And the gaps in access were most concentrated in rural, low-income, and tribal school districts; according to an NPR article, just over half of Native Americans living on tribal lands had access to high-speed Internet service. 

This Black History Month, I want to remind us that we can’t simply forget our past. Many of the inequities that persist in our education and workforce systems today are due to discriminatory policies and practices that have plagued public policy for generations. For example, the G.I. Bill – a sweeping piece of legislation that offered to lift millions of post-war veterans and their families out of poverty and into the middle class—turned out to be an empty promise for Black Americans (who had themselves fought in the war). Southern policymakers feared that Black veterans would use public sympathy for veterans to advocate against Jim Crow laws, and thus largely excluded them from any benefits the G.I. bill offered, including education, training and unemployment benefits. And this was compounded by redlining and white-run financial institutions refusing to lend to Black people—contributing to the racial wealth gap we see today. 

This moment requires a different approach, one that is inclusive and unrelenting in its effort to realize equity, and that prioritizes those with proximity to school systems and communities grappling with ever more glaring inequities. One solution is creating policies that dismantle inequities in our system, like the Strength in Diversity Act of 2021. (I was honored be a party of the team that introduced the 2020 Act while I working on the Hill for Rep. Marcia Fudge). Following Brown v. Board of Education, schools were mandated to desegregate to provide a fair and equal education for all students. This legislation builds on that intent. Though schools are no longer segregated in an overt, racially discriminatory ways, the issue of access and equity remains. All these years later, too often low-income, high-need schools are disproportionately Black and Brown. This historic piece of legislation moves us one step closer to realizing greater equity in our education system, and ensures that all students have fair access to resources. 

I’ll leave you with a story about a former student, who we’ll call James. At the start of the year James was the “class clown”. His primary objective was to get you to laugh by any means necessary. He often spent so much of his time focused on making others laugh, that I guess he forgot about the other important aspects of school such as: participating, coming prepared, or respecting his classmates. James’ blatant disregard for the feelings of others in pursuit of making you laugh was notorious. His name was often THE NAME used whenever bullying incidents occurred. According to James, it wasn’t his behavior and actions that got him sent to the refocus room, it was the teacher being unreasonable over small things. It wasn’t his responsibility to be on task when given a direction the first time; it was the teachers’ responsibility to remind him. Needless to say, James and I disagreed on many things.

Overtime, though, I made it my mission to invest in James. I let him know that I believed in him. I showed him through my actions that I desired for him to be in class with us, and not the refocus room. I communicated that I truly believed in his potential. It was a journey, and one that left James eventually opening up to me in tears about how he didn’t believe he was smart enough, and displaying deep insecurities of never amounting to anything. I would listen and allow James to feel what he was feeling – keenly understanding that he had never really been given permission to express himself in this way. 

James slowly began to make a shift. It started with him taking accountability for his actions. His inclination to immediately deny any responsibility for his actions changed to a more mature stance, one of accountability. He made progress with his studies – once reading a book about Sojourner Truth for 30-minutes straight – a significant increase from where he had begun. James went from bullying to being a role model and support system for others. He had gone from talking excessively, to being on task and reading at grade level. James inspired me and made me realize that HE is our future. I saw the bigger picture, and that was that James, his family, and his community deserve dignity. The dignity to dream; the dignity to thrive; the dignity to soar to the highest heights, if he so chooses. I think about James every so often, us now hundreds of miles apart, him being a college age student. My hope is that I never forget his story. My hope is that you don’t forget his story. James deserves the world, just like any other child. 

This Black History Month for me is about the past, the present, and the future. I hope closing with James’ story reminds you that this work we do, you do, is not just about numbers, charts, PowerPoints, or success… but our shared future. What do WE want that to look like? Have you thought about that? It is my belief that James, Angela, and all my former students, their families, their community and beyond deserve every bit of opportunity to realize their fullest potential as much as anyone else. Reflecting on the past requires that we become educated on how we got here. The present requires that we take action. And the future requires that we dream boldly. I encourage you to reflect and take time to educate yourself this Black History Month.