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Equity with Teeth

Updated: May 9, 2022

You have likely heard the word “equity” so many times it has almost lost its meaning. Words are cheap without action - we can do better.

As a policy advisor to school board members across the country, I often hear board members tell me “our board has an equity policy, but it doesn’t have any teeth.”

In recent years, it has become more common and expected practice among public school boards to develop and approve an equity policy, which usually consists of lengthy, flowery statements that condemn racism and commit to inclusive educational and work environments for people with diverse identities.

For example, the Seattle School Board’s equity policy, Ensuring Educational and Racial Equity, includes commitments to “eliminate the racial predictability and disproportionality in all aspects of education and its administration” and “ensure that each school creates a welcoming culture and inclusive environment that reflects and supports the diversity of the student population,” but when it comes ensuring accountability for execution, the policy defers to the Superintendent to “develop procedures to implement this policy, including an action plan with clear accountability and metrics.”

Too often school boards approve policies like this, but districts fail to follow through or report on sound metrics according to required timelines. The Seattle “Equity and Race Advisory Committee” established by the policy has a website that doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2015. When clicking on the “data” page, a message pops up that the website is still under construction. Frustrated with the lack of progress, two Seattle school board members moved in November 2020 to amend the policy to change the wording from “the Superintendent is authorized to…implement the policy” to “the Superintendent is required to…implement the policy.” It is hard to believe that changing this one word would have a dramatic impact on the actions of school officials who should already understand the intent of the policy by its very nature was to be directive, not advisory.

How do school boards ensure their equity policies – or any policies for that matter – are implemented with fidelity?

There are three ways school boards can add “teeth” to their equity policies:

  1. Include specific equity metrics. We’ve all heard the old adage, “what gets measured gets done,” which is certainly applicable in this context. For example, in addition to the statements of commitment to promote workforce equity, the equity policy should include the tangible expectations for how workforce equity will be measured, such as the promotion and compensation rates of people of color vs. their white peers. Most if not all of these metrics will be timeless by nature, and important for all future boards to monitor and understand. Instead of establishing additional steps that must be taken to establish the performance metrics, the policy ought to simply state what the performance metrics are to begin with.

  2. Tie the equity metrics to the superintendent evaluation. Perhaps nothing will carry more weight of importance than what criteria a board uses to evaluate the superintendent’s job performance, which ultimately informs whether his/her contract will be renewed. If a school board truly cares about anti-racist conditions and outcomes for students and staff, then it ought to raise the stakes and includes these metrics as a substantive component of the annual superintendent evaluation.

  3. Read the board policies and follow through on them. Sadly, very few school board members actually take the time to read their own policies, and are therefore unaware of whether the policies are being followed. For example, I work with a school board member from a major city who just recently discovered the school board’s equity policy, which was approved years ago, requires a biannual progress report from the Superintendent – but that reporting has not been occurring. Unless board members know their policies, the school’s board’s ability to properly govern is severely limited.

These three simple solutions can go a long way in strengthening a school board’s equity policy with real “teeth” and accountability.

If you’re like me and your life’s work is in public education, you have likely heard the word “equity” so many times it has almost lost its meaning. School board policy that goes ignored by the administration is about as meaningless as pontificating against racism on social media without actually acting in ways that are anti-racist. Words are cheap without action – we can do better.

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