The administration of new Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and some Virginia school systems, including Alexandria City Public Schools, have a significant disconnect about the meaning of the word “equity” and what it should mean in education. This disagreement is a bigger issue than mere semantics.
The Washington Post reported on March 5 that the Youngkin administration eliminated the word “equity” from state government documents and programs. The phrases “resource equity” and “responsibility to advance racial, social and economic equity” have been removed and Virginia’s Equity Audit Tool – a method to make critical evaluations of systems and practices through an equity lens – has been shut down. The state’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion was renamed the Office of Diversity, Opportunity and Inclusion.
The Post reported, “But just as equity in the business world means having a financial stake in something, Republicans say equity in the policy world suggests reward. They [Republicans] instead use the word equality, which from this point of view means everyone has an opportunity and success is up to the individual.”
“Equity has lost its traditional definition in the field of education,” Virginia Education Secretary Aimee Guidera said in a written statement. “Formerly, equity referred to the practice of providing equal access and opportunities to every learner. Increasingly, equity means that everyone achieves the same outcome.” However, everyone will never achieve the same outcome; life contains too many variables for that to happen.
In contrast with the Youngkin administration’s use of the word to mean equal access, attaining equity is a central ACPS goal. The ACPS 2020-2025: Strategic Plan: Equity for All states:
“Racial equity is when race does not determine quality of life, opportunities and outcomes. Our goal is to collectively remove barriers that prevent someone from achieving their aspirations and fully engaging in whatever they choose within ACPS’ educational experiences. ACPS places racial equity at the heart of everything it does due to the recognition that the creation and perpetuation of racial inequities has been deeply rooted into school systems.”
ACPS’ concept of equity is also problematic. If racial equity means that “race does not determine quality of life, opportunities and outcomes,” that leads to an unusual conclusion. It suggests that race can be a factor, just not the determining factor, in whether students are 1) “achieving their aspirations” and 2) accessing “ACPS’ educational experiences.” ACPS’ goal is to “collectively remove barriers” that prevent students from doing either of the above. The barriers to be removed are not described.
Thus, racial equity – which is “at the heart of everything [ACPS] does” – is not a clear concept.
Something seems lost in the conversation about what “equity” means, or should mean, in education. Too often “equity” is used to describe a hoped-for, settled or unchanging environment, for example, “when race does not determine the quality of life, opportunities and outcomes” or “when everyone achieves the same outcome.”
This misses the essential point that education is a process. The crucial value should be fairness in the process, which means that different student needs must be addressed in different and effective ways.
As Guidera said, it is not enough to provide “equal access and opportunities to every learner.” Some learners need more than what is provided to others. Schools must go the extra mile to provide those resources.
History shows that it is difficult to effectively correct for a person’s bad luck or unfortunate circumstances, but education, particularly by public schools, has been our best hope.
The goal of our public schools should be to provide each student with that which maximizes his or her abilities and opportunities irrespective of what is provided to other students. That is true fairness and equity.
The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006, and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and subscriptions to his newsletter are available free at https://aboutalexandria.substack.com/.