At our School Board meeting last Monday, we reviewed a draft of the District’s Equity Report for this year. The report consists primarily of listings of different measures of District resources and student achievement, disaggregated as appropriate by school or student grouping or other category.
The report was prepared in response to the Board’s Equity Policy, adopted two years ago, which states in part, “Administration will report on an annual basis to the Board of Education the extent of progress on specific measures in eliminating gaps in access, opportunities and achievement. Administration will develop an annual report that will provide data on the distribution of staff, financial, and programmatic resources across all schools.”
The report contains useful information and seems to complement our strategic plan. The action steps we pursue with respect to the strategic plan should be informed by, and can be judged against, the information in the equity report. So that’s all to the good.
It’s the other parts of our Equity policy that I have had a hard time figuring out. The policy starts with a definition: “Equity means the deliberate distribution of resources to provide full and meaningful access to comparable educational opportunity to assure that all MMSD students have the academic and interpersonal skills to be successful adults.”
Okay, no problem there. Next come a listing of assumptions and goals:
1. Schools will be excellent only when students of all economic and demographic groups are achieving at high levels.
2. Schools should reflect fairness and high expectations for all learners.
3. Achieving equity often requires an unequal distribution of resources and services in response to the unequal distribution of needs and educational barriers.
4. Strong district and building leaders with a focus on equity are critical factors to achieving district goals.
5. Every Madison school will be equally desirable and of the highest quality.
1. The district will eliminate gaps in access, opportunities, and achievement by recognizing and addressing historic and contemporary inequalities.
2. The district will recognize and eliminate inequitable policies and practices at the district level.
3. The district will recognize and eliminate inequity in and among schools.
Then the policy wraps up with the reporting requirement quoted above.
It seems to me that what the policy lacks is a policy component. Instead, we have only assumptions and goals. (And one of the assumptions – “Every Madison school will be equally desirable and of the highest quality” – should be a goal instead.) This is sort of like having an investment policy consisting of the goal of being financially well-off. The policy doesn’t provide much guidance on how to get from here to there.
The goals of the policy are fairly anodyne. We will eliminate gaps in access, opportunities, and achievement; and we will recognize and eliminate inequitable policies and practices at the district level, and “inequity” in and among schools. The goals are also largely circular. What’s our equity goal? To eliminate inequities. Okay, good to have that cleared up.
The adoption of this policy two years ago was the culmination of the work of an Equity Task Force, which had completed its work about a year before. But the members of the Task Force shouldn’t be blamed for the vacuity of the policy. We School Board members get credit for that. As I recall, consideration and adoption of the policy turned out to be a real sausage-making exercise. I was part of it, and I remember being uncomfortable with some of the possible implications of the more specific policy that the Task Force had come up with. We ended up with a vaguer statement than the Task Force recommended, which reduced potential controversy but also the clarity of the policy.
- Is it inequitable if one school has more computers than another?
- Is it inequitable if West High parents raise the money to field an extra junior varsity soccer team?
- Is it inequitable if the teachers at one school are, on average, more experienced than the teachers at another school?
- Is it inequitable that Lapham is the only elementary school with a pool?
- Is it inequitable that Memorial is the only high school that has a wonderfully successful forensics program led by a fabulous teacher?
My inclination is to think that none of these examples necessarily describes inequities that call out for some sort of remedy, but I can’t ground my instincts in the language of our equity policy. The policy announces that we are against inequities but doesn’t provide a limiting principle that enables us to differentiate between what is actually inequitable and the kinds of variations in resources that are inevitable in a school district of any size.
One possible approach to equity is illustrated by the perhaps apocryphal story of the size of the swimming pools at our high schools. The story goes that the swimming pool at West had to be built to be narrower than a regulation pool because of the constrained layout of the facility. When pools were later built at East, Memorial and LaFollette, they too were designed to be as narrow as the West pool, apparently on the reasoning that it would be inequitable for the other schools to have a wider pool. As a result of this approach, we now have four high school swimming pools that are too narrow rather than just one.
I hope this story is some sort of urban myth, since the decision-making it reflects seems so wrong-headed. A reasonable approach to equity doesn’t deny a benefit to some simply because it isn’t available to all.
While an unnecessarily rigid approach to equity can be counterproductive, an excessive tolerance of differences presents its own problems. If parents of students at Van Hise Elementary (22% free and reduced lunch) raised enough money to hire additional teachers for the school, it’s not a sufficient response to the equity issue to explain that the parents of students at Glendale Elementary (83% free and reduced lunch) are free to do the same thing. To paraphrase Anatole France, we don’t want an equity policy that, in its majestic equality, permits rich and poor parents alike to make sizable monetary contributions to ensure special advantages for their children in our schools.
While the issues may be relatively straightforward at either extreme, equity concerns that arise in more nuanced situations frequently don’t have obvious answers. There is often no substitute for taking a hard look at the situation, trying to understand the countervailing considerations, and exercising individual judgment as to whether a difference in resources or opportunities is inequitable, recognizing that reasonable people can reach different conclusions on these tough issues.
What makes thinking about this issue more than an academic exercise for me is that it is not uncommon for a claim to be made that a proposed Board action would violate our equity policy. I often don’t know how to assess such a claim. This can lead to some dissonance, because the assertion of a violation of the policy is sometimes made with such conviction as to imply that the point is self-evident.
For example, the equity policy was invoked at times during our most recent budget deliberations. One occasion was our consideration of a budget proposal to eliminate an MSCR summer program at Lindbergh, the district’s smallest elementary school with a high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. (We ended up not eliminating the program.) This proposal might have had a sound budgetary basis or it might not have, but was the proposal itself a violation of, or inconsistent with, the equity policy?
The answer, I think, is one much favored by lawyers – it depends. Among other questions, we would want to ask what sort of comparable opportunities are offered at other schools and what legitimate reasons there are, if any, to get rid of this program and not others. There may well be such reasons to treat the program at Lindbergh differently from similar programs at other schools – perhaps because enrollment is smaller, perhaps because there are other reasonable program options nearby, perhaps because of other considerations.
Our equity policy should prompt us to ask these sorts of questions, but the policy itself does not provide the answers. Which is to say that, at least for me, an assertion that a proposal or action violates our equity policy should be the start of a conversation, not the end of one.