The Pulse

Students of color are the largest demographic in North Carolina’s schools. Shouldn’t people who look like them help plan their future?

By: - February 24, 2022 3:00 pm
Photo captured from James Ford’s tweet.

Issues of racial inequity surface as state House committee discusses the future of public education

A panel examining and planning the future of public education in North Carolina doesn’t reflect the racial makeup of most students who currently attend the state’s K-12 schools.

Only one of nine members serving on the House Select Committee on an Education System for North Carolina’s Future is African American and none are Hispanic.

Meanwhile, students of color are the majority of the 1.37 million students enrolled in the state’s traditional public schools. Combined, they are roughly 54% of students who attend public schools. About forty-four percent of students are white.

James Ford

“If they didn’t consider people of color as they composed the committee, why should I be confident they’ll consider students of color as part of the future of schools?” asked State Board of Education member James Ford, who is Black.

Ford, the director of the Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED) in Charlotte, posted a tweet and a photo of the committee’s meeting Monday:

“#Representation matters! Who’s in the room when important decisions are made? Do their experiences mirror those of the public they are supposed to serve?”

The House panel has pledged to spend up to two years examining public schools before making recommendations that lead to legislation to improve them.

Rep. John Torbett

Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican, is senior chairman of the committee. He didn’t respond to Policy Watch’s request for an interview to discuss the panel.

Rep. Evelyn Terry, the panel’s lone Black member, did not immediately return Policy Watch’s call.

Last September, Torbett introduced House Bill 324 to restrict what could be taught about America’s racial past in public schools, Ford noted.

“And now, he’s the leader of a committee where white people are overrepresented and making decisions about majority Black and Brown school systems,” Ford said. “That gives me great concern.”

Rodney Pierce, an 8th-grade social studies teacher in Nash County Public Schools, said it’s an insult to include only one Black lawmaker [Terry] on the panel and no Black males.

“Our General Assembly leadership continues to display its obdurate attitude towards the interests of Black men in their state,” Pierce said in an emailed statement. “Black males make up only 3% of K-12 educators in North Carolina, and about 12% to 13% of our students, yet they make up the highest share of those disciplined and the lowest share identified as gifted and talented despite being a higher percentage of the student population than other male students of color (American Indian, Hispanic Asian, etc.) combined.”

Student discipline took center stage at the House Select Committee’s meeting on Monday. Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson told the committee that students who misbehave must be turned over to the proper authorities.

“Bad actors should be removed from the classroom and given to the proper authorities whoever that authority might be, whether that be a law enforcement official or a social worker,” said Robinson, a Republican from Greensboro and the state’s first Black lieutenant governor.

His call for police involvement in schools comes as some activists demand an end to school resource officers (SROs) programs. Those critical of such programs contend they feed the school-to-prison pipeline through which too many students of color flow.

Rep. Jeff Zenger

Rep. Jeff Zenger, a Republican from Forsyth County, told the committee on that “fatherless homes” are the source of school discipline problems. Black males receive the lion’s share of school suspensions.

“If you track fatherlessness over the last 60 years, I don’t care what race it is, you just track fatherlessness and you look at discipline, they mirror each other,” Zenger said.

He added: “For years we’ve emasculated men, we’ve not held people up to be honorable. And I think one of the things we are going to have to do even though it’s really  supposed to be the role of the parents, we’re going to have to do some things to teach young men how to be young men.”

That part of the panel’s discussion was particularly discouraging, Ford said.

“It was all very coded, Southern strategy-type of language,” Ford said. “It was all about people needing to learn respect, not having fathers, lack of home training and the lieutenant governor [Robinson] talking about how crime has run amuck when that’s not supported by the data.”

Short-term suspensions and long-term suspensions have both decreased over the past decade, a trend that began even before the pandemic sent many students home to learn remotely. And the rate of serious, reportable crimes such as assault, robbery and rape has steadily declined since the 2016-17 school year. The past two school years saw dramatic declines because students were learning from home due to the pandemic.

­­­Ford said it will be impossible to devise an effective plan to improve public education in North Carolina without the perspective of people who look like most of the state’s schoolchildren in the room.

Latinx is the fastest-growing demographic in the state and they’re not represented on the panel, Ford said, and neither is the Asian community.

“So, my question is, what exactly is the intention of this committee?” he said. “How are they intending to render an accurate or authentic picture of the future of the state when they don’t have individuals who look like the state in the room?”

Ford said he’s also concerned about the panel’s singular focus on education as a tool to prepare students for work.

“I support that, but that’s only part of the purpose of education,” Ford said. “When you speak about education in strictly industrial terms, you must remember that the first iterations of Black education in the South were designed, not to offer them a classical liberal arts curriculum but to prepare Black people to be low-wage labor and to assume their proper place in the economy.”

The discussion must be about both educating the whole person – mind, body and soul – in addition to preparing students for work, Ford said.

“Black folks aren’t in the room, and they’re talking about there’s no need to go to college,” Ford said, noting the nation’s history of academic tracking or steering students of color to less rigorous academic courses and programs.

Ford said the committee’s leaders must allow groups representing students of color to present counter-narratives to ensure that diverse voices are heard as it plans the future of education in North Carolina.

“Bring in some organizations that can offer some data and some expertise about what the state’s student populations need and desire,” Ford said. “We talk a lot about diversity of thought but so far, everything has come from a certain ideological bent.”

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.