As I watched a mob of brazen white supremacists storm the United States Capitol during a global pandemic, I feared not only for my home city but also could not stop thinking about how this failed insurrection clearly showed the two systems of accountability in America. These people were hell bent on perpetuating violence and desecrating our democracy.
But just months before, we saw non-violent protestors supporting Black lives—and the health of our democracy—met with rubber bullets and tear gas. The separate but unequal reactions from law enforcement were not surprising or unpredictable, but the flagrant disregard for Black and brown lives remains jarring.
The white supremacists’ failed coup comes on the heels of a year riddled by COVID-19 that has only further shined a light on how systematic racism, unequal access to opportunity, and disinvestments in low-income communities and communities of color have compounded longstanding inequities. As the Biden-Harris Administration works to “build back better,” the federal government—and specifically the U.S. Department of Education—must work to immediately restore its role as a civil rights agency and take decisive and bold action to uncover and disrupt the systemic racism that undergirds inequity across all sectors and fuels education opportunity gaps.
First and foremost, if confirmed by the Senate, new Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona must use his platform to lead a nationwide conversation about education through a racial equity lens. That “bully pulpit” role was abandoned under the 45th president and is critical to “nudging our decentralized system toward greater equity.” It must be restored by a leader who intentionally creates and maintains space for conversation with communities—like those in Tacoma and Buffalo—that have been marginalized and directly impacted by racial injustice. These communities are making progress even as they battle the insidious racist forces that have existed since the founding of this country, and the Secretary of Education should be out front learning from and supporting their work.
Second, the U.S. Department of Education must use every tool it has to combat the opportunity gaps that existed before—and have been exacerbated by—COVID-19. This includes working closely with Congress to take immediate action to close the digital divide and to invest additional resources to address instructional loss. It also requires action to incentivize states to ensure that their funding formulas provide students with the greatest needs the resources they need to succeed in college and careers.
Prior to the pandemic, the United States spent $1,800 less per student in districts serving the most students of color, driven in no small part by vast differences in property wealth as a result of decades of discriminatory lending and zoning practices, documented in the We Refuse to Lose series. Prior experience shows us that unless the federal government acts, districts serving students of color and students experiencing poverty will continue to disproportionally suffer from the impacts of the pandemic-induced economic crisis.
The department must also immediately strengthen and re-issue prior guidance that supports a racial justice agenda, including guidance to states, schools and institutions of higher education to legally pursue desegregation strategies that increase diversity, as well as guidance related to ensuring that students of color aren’t disproportionately subjected to exclusionary school discipline. It must take appropriate civil rights enforcement actions to ensure that students of color, Native students, English learners, students with disabilities, and students experiencing poverty have access to the same opportunities and resources as their peers.
As a country, we must act swiftly—beginning with action during the first 100 days of the Biden-Harris Administration—if we truly “refuse to lose” the students and families who have been directly impacted by COVID-19 and 400 years of anti-Blackness and anti-immigrant sentiment.