Tag Archives: equity

During 2022 State Legislative Sessions, Keep an Eye on Education Finance Equity

To bolster efforts to improve state education funding systems, Bellwether Education Partners compiled a series of policy briefs that gives advocates a crash course on the fundamentals of education finance equity as well as key questions to ask in their states and communities. These briefs are timely, as several states have already signaled that education finance will be a major policy issue during 2022 legislative sessions: 

In addition to the potential legislative changes, ongoing litigation in North Carolina and Pennsylvania courts could lead to substantive changes in education funding. The legislative and court considerations around education finance are not only timely, but necessary. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the vast majority of state funding formulas made attempts at equity for lower-wealth communities and students with greater needs, but too many were falling short. Whether not fully accounting for differences in student learning needs or using outdated methods to account for local tax revenue, these inequities translated into real consequences for kids. Recent research shows that more funding can improve student achievement, graduation rates, and college enrollment — particularly for low-income students. 

This research is particularly germane given the growing evidence of the severity of learning loss that students — especially students of color, low-income students, and students at key milestones (e.g., third-grade reading) — experienced during the pandemic. If states are serious about addressing unfinished learning and ensuring that all students leave their systems prepared for college and career, it starts with equitable funding. 

What would an equitable state education funding formula look like? It would start with a generous base amount for every student, and then additional weight would be given for students with disabilities, ELLs, students in rural communities, and low-income students. This is known as a student-weighted funding formula. The specifics should vary based on the particular equity considerations of each states’ students and communities. This type of system can ensure that students are receiving funding based on their needs, rather than on how much property wealth their community has. 

State Spotlight: Minnesota

During the 2021 Minnesota legislative session, state advocates heard some version of, “given recent federal COVID-19 relief funds based on low-income students, tackling state funding right now just isn’t a priority.” Representatives and senators from both parties used this talking point as a rationale for not taking legislative action to make the state’s education finance system more equitable. This type of thinking is not only short-sighted, but it does a disservice to Minnesota’s most underserved students. 

It’s true that the federal government passed three stimulus packages that dispersed $189 billion to state departments of education and school districts across the country. Although these temporary funds don’t address the systemic inequities that are baked into state education funding formulas, they do present a policy opportunity. With budgetary pressures somewhat relieved, states should use this moment to revamp their education finance formulas with students at the center. 

But instead of fixing the state’s funding formulas for students with disabilities, ELLs, and low-income students — which includes overly complicated caps and combinations of concentration and weights — the Minnesota legislature did nothing. This translates to another school year without equitable funding for Minnesota’s most marginalized students who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.  

It’s promising to see so many states tackle education finance during 2022 legislative sessions. As the legislative session continues, states must keep underserved students at the center and wade through the politics to pass bills that will create more equitable school funding systems. Time will tell if this comes to fruition.  

*Editor’s note: The Tennessee Department of Education is a Bellwether client.

Celebrating Black History Month: Team Reflections (Part Three)

Photo courtesy of Rodnae Productions for Pexels

Throughout the month of February, Bellwether will highlight team members’ reflections on the impact of Black History Month, how education shapes one’s perspective on it, and how the contributions of Black Americans impact our everyday work. 

We asked Bellwarians to answer the following questions and featured responses in a three-part series on Ahead of the Heard. Below is part three in the series, read parts one and two here and here.

  • When you think about your own schooling and education more generally, how did you learn about Black history?
  • When you think of Black historical heroes no longer living today, who is someone you think of? Why is their legacy important to you and to the wider world?
  • What does Black History Month mean to you? 

When you think about your own schooling and education more generally, how did you learn about Black history?

Ebony Lambert, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation
I learned little about Black history in classrooms, despite attending predominantly Black schools. But my parents made sure I learned my history at home by sharing their lived experiences. My father often talked about growing up on the farm where his parents had been sharecroppers, describing his younger self as silly and a little mischievous. My mother spoke about what it was like to attend newly integrated schools in the former capital of the Confederacy, and to be a young Black girl full to bursting with laughter and a love of soul music.

My parents’ stories highlighted the embodied nature of the history we discussed abstractly in school. Learning about their lives was a powerful reminder that Black history is much more than the few extraordinary people it’s often reduced to, and more than stories of subjugation. Black history is expansive. It captures the resilience, creativity, and full humanity of everyday people making a way out of no way.

Valentina Payne, chief of staff to Andrew Rotherham
When I reflect on what I learned of Black history while I was in school, what stands out most is how much I didn’t learn. I learned about the tragedies faced by Black Americans, but I never learned about the people who sat by and allowed it to happen. I learned about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech but I didn’t learn that more people were against him than on his side when he was still alive. I learned that Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus, but I didn’t learn that she was taking a stand — I learned that she was a tired, older woman who didn’t want to have to make the effort to move to the back. I read literature about the relationships between white and Black people, rather than reading about the Black experience outside of its proximity to whiteness. I learned almost exclusively of tragedy, rather than Black joy, creativity, and triumph. I didn’t learn from a Black educator until I was in college. There’s so much that I didn’t learn until later in life, and I still have so much left to learn.

Melissa Steel King, partner, Policy and Evaluation
When I think of how I first learned about Black history, two specific children’s book titles from my childhood in the late 1970s come to mind. One was a coloring book called “Color Me Brown,” featuring drawings and poems about 29 notable African Americans. The other was the Golden Legacy Illustrated History series — a set of 16 beautifully drawn comic books recounting great achievements by Black people in America and beyond (my brother and I particularly loved the one about Black cowboys). At the time, we just enjoyed the stories and pictures, but it turns out it was a beautiful gift our parents gave us because these books ingrained in us very early an awareness that Black history is more complex than just one or two stories in the margins of a textbook; we were confident in the knowledge that Black and brown people had contributed to world history in all sorts of creative, trailblazing, courageous, memorable, fierce, colorful, and ingenious ways.

DaWana Williamson, partner and chief operating officer
I grew up in a home where there were daily conversations about the contributions of those who came out of the African diaspora. This was everyday life for my younger siblings and me growing up in a multi-generational home that included both my parents and my maternal grandad, lovingly known as “Papa George.” To this day, my mother has a huge framed map of Africa showing where slave ships docked and captured humans, taking them from their homeland, never to return. I was immersed in the lessons and contributions of these people in my home and in my Baptist Black church.  

The only thing I remember learning in my public schooling about Black history was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Malcolm X’s rage as perceived by the white majority, and the usual suspects of inventors and writers such as Daniel Hale Williams, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Thurgood Marshall, among others. Not that they are insignificant, but, truly, they represent such a small cross-section of Black history and the impact of Africans’ contribution to America and the world.  

I do remember having a “classroom” in my bedroom and teaching my friends what I called “real” Black history ​​— one of the gifts of the informal curriculum that comes from growing up as a teacher’s kid!

Thomas Gold, senior associate partner, Policy and Evaluation
Black History Month, which started to be officially recognized in 1970, didn’t play a big role in my early schooling in 1970s and 1980s New Hampshire, the last state to officially recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an official holiday. This lack of recognition of Black leaders in the annals of American history is just one of the reasons why many Americans have very little exposure to Black writers and thinkers. When I was in college, I read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — one of the most important documents of the civil rights movement. It’s a full-throated defense of the use of peaceful protests as a means to fight unjust systems and to push for systemic change. And it motivated me to study political science in graduate school and learn about social movements. 

So, when I think about Black History Month, I think about the huge contributions that Dr. King and others have made toward democracy in the U.S. His legacy couldn’t be more relevant today as we find ourselves at a political tipping point, with growing divisions along the lines of race, region, and religion, a steep decline in the belief in democracy, and only one year after a mob attempted an insurrection of the U.S. Capitol. According to a March 2021 Pew poll, only 45% percent of Americans are satisfied with the way democracy runs in the country. There’s a deep lack of trust in democratic institutions — Congress, the courts, and the press — and as we have been seeing over the past year, a belief that the election system is somehow “rigged.” 

But there’s hope. The summer 2020 protests demanding justice for the killings of George Floyd and other Black men and women underscore the centrality of Dr. King’s legacy of nonviolent protest in the democratic system. It’s possible that if and when we reach the other side of this period of political polarization, our democratic institutions could emerge stronger, more equitable, and more resilient. 

When you think of Black historical heroes no longer living today, who is someone you think of? Why is their legacy important to you and to the wider world?

Cathy Thomas, executive assistant
Congressman John Lewis is someone I consider to be a Black historical hero. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for him, and when he died, I knew our country lost a truly great man. Well known as a leader of the civil rights movement, he was also an advocate for the women’s movement, immigrants’ rights, and he was an early defender of LGBTQ rights. As a young man working in the struggle for civil rights, he was arrested and beaten, yet he was not deterred by the brutal violence he and other protesters faced. Through it all, he never became a bitter man but maintained a philosophy of nonviolence, forgiveness, and reconciliation. His legacy of getting into “good trouble” to effect change for our country is an inspiration to so many.

Catch up on parts one and two in Ahead of the Heard’s Black History Month series here and here. And join the conversation @bellwethered.

Celebrating Black History Month: Team Reflections (Part Two)

Photo courtesy of Rodnae Productions for Pexels

Throughout the month of February, Bellwether will highlight team members’ reflections on the impact of Black History Month, how education shapes one’s perspective on it, and how the contributions of Black Americans impact our everyday work. 

We asked Bellwarians to answer the following questions and will feature responses in a three-part series on Ahead of the Heard. Below is part two in the series, stay tuned for part three later on in Black History Month.

  • When you think about your own schooling and education more generally, how did you learn about Black history?
  • When you think of Black historical heroes no longer living today, who is someone you think of? Why is their legacy important to you and to the wider world?
  • What does Black History Month mean to you? 

When you think about your own schooling and education more generally, how did you learn about Black history?

Leonard D.T. Newby, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation
I was fortunate enough to attend schools that celebrated Black History Month (BHM) throughout my K-12 matriculation. I anticipated learning about the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ida B. Wells, and Malcolm X every February. However, we rarely heard about the impact of their works in the context of American history. It wasn’t until I attended a Historically Black College and University that I realized that my learnings during that time were grossly constrained. From the limited number of figures presented to the whitewashing of their stories, BHM was, and remains, more performative than productive in K-12 schools. The impact that Black Americans have on this nation is deserving of more than one month and should be woven into the threads of American history 365 days a year.

Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, partner, Policy and Evaluation
I didn’t really learn about Black history, certainly not in any comprehensive kind of way. I grew up mostly in Georgia where our public school social studies curriculum taught us that the Civil War was primarily fought over states’ rights. The part of the sentence that was missing was “states’ rights…to allow people to own slaves.” I was in college before I heard a teacher say that out loud. Sure, I learned about a handful of individuals in history classes — Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr. Basically, Black history for me in school was a series of biographies of select laudable individuals, but not a true tracing of events and cultural movements over time. It’s a profound gap that I’m still working to fill. And that wasn’t in the 1950s. I don’t know how much that curriculum has changed, honestly, and it’s part of what scares me about current conversations around what parts of our history should or shouldn’t be taught. Black History Month programming cannot be the only place where we can build understanding of the full history of our country, good, bad, and tragic.

Daniela Torre Gibney, senior associate partner, Policy and Evaluation
In school, I didn’t learn deeply about Black history until I got to college — I don’t recall learning anything beyond the typical narrative focused on a few key figures of the civil rights era. However, at home, my parents frequently talked with me and my siblings about race-, class-, and gender-based injustice and inequality. As immigrants from Argentina, they were not experts in Black history in the U.S., but they did recognize and relate to the systemic and everyday racism experienced by Black Americans. These conversations were the bedrock for my learning about Black history, as well as the history of other marginalized populations in the U.S. and beyond. They also taught me from a young age that I needed to look beyond formal schooling to learn about the world around me. 

When you think of Black historical heroes no longer living today, who is someone you think of? Why is their legacy important to you and to the wider world?

Moire Carmody, director of operations
I love to read, so the Black historical hero I think of first is the novelist Toni Morrison. In high school, I read her first five novels and it opened my eyes to life outside of the mostly white Vermont town I grew up in. It’s important to me to read books by female authors, about the experiences of females. Her books were wonderfully written and showed me diverse characters that were absent in my world. That exposure to diversity inspired me to explore working for mission-based nonprofit organizations after college. As the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1993), Toni Morrison continues to inspire writers and readers everywhere.

Dwan Dube, executive assistant
Maya Angelou. She used her words as weapons and that skill has to be taught more to our kids. “Still I Rise” is so inspiring to my daughter and it gives her hope that there is a freedom you can find from a traumatic past. 

Stay tuned for parts two and three in this series as Black History Month continues.

Celebrating Black History Month: Team Reflections (Part One)

Photo courtesy of Rodnae Productions for Pexels

Throughout the month of February, Bellwether will highlight team members’ reflections on the impact of Black History Month, how education shapes one’s perspective on it, and how the contributions of Black Americans impact our everyday work. 

We asked Bellwarians to answer the following questions and will feature responses in a three-part series on Ahead of the Heard. Stay tuned for parts two and three later on during Black History Month.

  • When you think about your own schooling and education more generally, how did you learn about Black history?
  • When you think of Black historical heroes no longer living today, who is someone you think of? Why is their legacy important to you and to the wider world?
  • What does Black History Month mean to you? 

When you think of Black historical heroes no longer living today, who is someone you think of? Why is their legacy important to you and to the wider world?

Lynne Graziano, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation
Arthur Ashe was one of my heroes. He broke color barriers in tennis, beat Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon, fought against apartheid, and helped dismantle the stigma surrounding AIDS at its deadliest peak.

Andrew Rotherham, co-founder and partner
When Zora Neale Hurston died in 1960 at 69 she was basically broke, living in a public home, having worked most recently as a substitute teacher and a maid. Thirteen years later, Alice Walker found Hurston’s grave and marked it. Walker subsequently published an article that helped return Hurston from literary obscurity. That’s to all our benefit. Hurston herself, however, didn’t need rescuing. She was an iconoclast and unafraid to do things her way throughout her life.

Her last book, “Barracoon,” a nonfiction account of a man on the last ship to make the Middle Passage, was published in 2018 — more than 70 years since she stopped working on it and a half century after her death. Why? Because she refused to compromise aspects of it believing in an unflinching accounting of history that consequently alienated various patrons. Then, and now, resistance to her writing is tied up in the idea that her use of dialects was a problem in various ways. Yes, for some, and, so is her use, or more precisely refusal to misuse, history. The result? A body of fiction and nonfiction work fitting no single narrative. Could she be difficult? Probably, as most iconoclasts are. She fell out with everyone from Langston Hughes to the editor of The Pittsburgh Courier who had hired her to cover a landmark trial — that later became a bestselling book for someone else.

It’s wonderful that her books and stories are in wider circulation now as part of the American canon. In particular, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is widely read and assigned. But there is so much more to her work. Much of it is hard to read, not because of the dialect but the brutal honesty. Her method allowed no other way.

That’s real and vital. Especially at a time when conformist pressure is all around in politics but also in literature, art, and culture, all while an arms race is on to redefine American history to fit the political stories of culture warriors on the right and left. Hurston’s perhaps more relevant than ever to American life and to anyone with, as she put it, “that oldest human longing — self revelation.”

When you think about your own schooling and education more generally, how did you learn about Black history?

Brian Robinson, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation
I didn’t learn about Black history in school. Sure, I learned about Martin Luther King Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech and Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. But I didn’t learn about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I didn’t learn about Juneteenth. I didn’t learn about Emmett Till. I didn’t learn about Henrietta Lacks. I didn’t learn about the many contributions Black Americans made in this country, and really in the world. I didn’t learn about Black history until I got much older and began reading on my own, watching documentaries, and visiting museums. It’s important for all schools to do a better job of teaching the entirety of Black history (aka American History!) — the good, bad, and everything in between — earlier and more often than just during Black History Month, and in ways that invite critical discussions and reflections.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Indira Dammu, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation
For much of America’s history, immigration from Asian countries was severely restricted or banned for racist reasons. However, the civil rights movement, led by Black activists and advocates, helped end the race-based immigration quota system, which allowed more Asians to immigrate here and live out our pursuit of the promise of America. So, to me, Black history is very much connected to Asian-American history and our community owes a lot to the Black leaders who pursued liberation for all.

Stay tuned for parts two and three in this series as Black History Month continues.

School Choice or Option-Enabling Policies Must Center Equity

National School Choice Week is taking on particular importance this year, as more families seek options beyond the traditional K-12 public school system. During the 2020-21 school year, charter schools saw a 7% increase in enrollment compared to the previous school year, while traditional public school enrollment declined by at least 1.4 million students. Additionally, many families, including significant numbers of families of color, turned to home-schooling and emerging choice options such as microschools or learning pods. As more parents demand choice and flexibility in their children’s schooling, and more states accommodate them, equity must be at the heart of any school choice or option-enabling policy. 

In Expanding Educational Options: Emergent Policy Trends, Alex Spurrier, Lynne Graziano, Juliet Squire and I document the current state of choice or option-enabling education policies across the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, there has been a push in Republican-led states to create or expand already-established private school choice voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs. Beyond the programs that typically come to mind when thinking of “school choice,” many states have been investing in and expanding flexible learning options to meet the varying needs and preferences of students, including career and technical education (CTE), concurrent or dual enrollment, work-based learning, and extended learning. 

When implemented with equity at its core, school choice and other option-enabling policies have the potential to level the playing field for students from historically marginalized communities. Students who are economically disadvantaged, who are disproportionately Black and Latino, are more likely to be assigned to low-performing, high-poverty schools. For example, nearly half of Black students attend high-poverty schools compared to just 8% of white students. When considering academic achievement, Black students performed about three to four times worse on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading, math, and science assessments than white students. The persistent gaps in academic achievement can often be traced back to historic underinvestment in those schools and communities, still impacted by a legacy of segregation and redlining

Despite this potential, not enough school choice or option-enabling policies are designed or implemented with equity at the center. For starters, school choice policies typically don’t provide real access to opportunities for all families. Take private school vouchers and tax-credit scholarship programs, which do not always cover the cost of the average private school tuition. As a result, eligible low-income families are less able to benefit from the program. 

For example, the Florida Family Empowerment Scholarship Program awards private school vouchers up to $7,403 (95% of the state’s unweighted full-time equivalent funding). Yet, according to the website Private School Review, the average private school tuition in Florida is $9,595 per year. In these circumstances, parents are left to pay the difference out of pocket or rely on philanthropic support. If the state is going to provide families with options, it should fully fund those options or require participating schools to accept vouchers as full payment. Louisiana is one state that requires participating private schools to accept the voucher as full payment of tuition and any other fees associated with attending the school.

Admission requirements can be an additional barrier to otherwise eligible voucher families. Participating private schools can require students to meet entry requirements, limiting access to otherwise eligible students. Wisconsin is one of the few states where participating private schools can only deny admission to students for capacity reasons. When demand exceeds capacity, a lottery is held to determine admission. Furthermore, state policies often fail to provide adequate protection from discrimination on the basis of religion or LGBTQ+ identity. Maryland’s law explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Some private school choice options also lack accountability for academic performance. In several states with voucher programs, students attending private schools using taxpayer dollars aren’t required to sit for assessments or otherwise demonstrate academic progress. In states where students are required to test, there’s often little in the law holding them accountable if and when students don’t make progress. Indiana is an exception. It requires participating private schools to test voucher recipients, assigns an accountability rating, and disqualifies schools from participating in the program if they have a D or F rating for two or more consecutive years. 

When it comes to enrollment, inter-district open-enrollment policies and charter school laws theoretically open opportunities for all students. However, across the country, seats in highly desirable schools or districts are typically limited. In Philadelphia, more than 29,000 seats are available in schools identified as low-achieving, while high-achieving schools have no seats available and are often over-enrolled. When there are more applicants than seats available, a randomized lottery is held to determine students’ admission. State policies allow for preferences in the lottery, such as whether an applicant has a sibling already attending the school, but rarely are at-risk students given priority for admission, potentially closing opportunities to students who may need them most. Additionally, in some states open enrollment is voluntary, meaning school districts can choose not to participate — and in many cases, highly desired suburban and more affluent districts don’t participate.

Lastly, access to data and information families want or need is often difficult to come by, despite significant investments by states, local school districts, and philanthropy. Families, particularly those from historically marginalized groups, often have difficulty navigating choice and have less access to information about their options, enrollment processes, and transportation processes. 

Policymakers must prioritize equity, transparency, and accountability when debating and enacting choice or option-enabling policies, including:

  • Ensuring equitable access and opportunity is at the core of any state school choice or option-enabling policy, including investing in supports for students from historically marginalized communities to ensure their success. 
  • Making information easily accessible to all families so they are aware of their choices and how to exercise them.
  • Holding all education service providers accountable for learning outcomes. 
  • Collecting and making public disaggregated data on the number of students exercising choices, the types of choices students make, and student learning outcomes. 

Failure to prioritize equity and provide real options to students from historically marginalized communities risk exacerbating existing and historical inequities and opportunity gaps. As we celebrate National School Choice Week and continue expanding education options for families, it’s imperative that equity remains front and center.