October 14 marks the National #TeachTruth Day of Action and launch to the 2021-22 Black Lives Matter at School Year of Purpose. It is a rallying point for educators, parents, community members, and most importantly students, around teaching the truth about structural racism and other forms of oppression.
The day is also George Floyd's birthday. He would have been 48. The significance of this and his memory surfaces many important questions: What is the role of education in creating a better society? What kind of truths must our children learn at school so that his horrific killing is never repeated? How do we ensure Black children— like his 7 year-old daughter— know that their lives matter?
We have to turn our attention to schools, where kids spend most of their time outside of home learning, developing, playing, and building community. Schools must affirm and reflect in their policies and practices that Black lives matter. That's why the BLM at School movement has outlined four key demands nationwide.
So, where is Michigan in meeting these demands and affirming that Black lives matter at school? Here's a snapshot view of where we stand:
🔵 Demand #1: End Zero Tolerance (Focus our Schools on Restorative Justice). 🔵
Zero tolerance emerged amidst the 1990s "tough on crime" policies and quickly trickled into schools as "tough on discipline." This became even more widespread after Columbine. And, like the laws outside of schools, these mandatory penalties have been proven ineffective and their implementation has disproportionately targeted students of color, particularly Black students, and not the main perpetrators of school mass shootings.
In 2017-18, Michigan formally replaced its zero tolerance policy. Before the pandemic began, expulsions had decreased 12% statewide, and yet, of the expulsions that still took place in 2018-19 (the last full, in-person school year before COVID-19), 55% were of non-white students, far outpacing their share of the statewide student population.
This may be because the reforms are applied incredibly unevenly district-to-district, and schools with the fewest resources are the least able to implement the new approach properly due because of the time and staff it requires.
This is unsuprising considering Michigan public schools have been some of the most underfunded in the nation. That's why the upcoming year will represent a huge opportunity. School funding in Michigan just received a historic investment due to ARPA funds from the federal government.
To fully mitigate the effects of decades of zero tolerance more change will be needed, either in procedural changes at the local level or additional revisions by state legislation, like a recent package of bills introduced in the legislature in September.
🔵 Demand #2: Mandate Black History and Ethnic Studies. 🔵
The State Board of Education approved new revisions to the social studies standards most recently in 2019. These changes include more examples of and references to women, Muslims, African Americans, and other groups that face marginalization. One notable improvement, though still insufficient, are added references to Indigenous Peoples; prior to 2019, none of the 39 standards mentioned native groups or life after the 1900s, proliferating erasure and confining indigenous cultures and histories to the past. Nevertheless, increased inclusion does not constitute specific ethnic studies nor is there a requirement that Black history is taught in any holistic manner.
In fact, the standards say that students should know about the Trans-African and Trans-Atlantic slave trade, post-Civil War struggles, and civil rights movement, but nothing before or after.
The history of systemic racism and the movements to end it is an unavoidable topic in classrooms when learning about the history of the United States (with careful attention not to write the actual word, "slave," our founding document enshrined slavery in no less than three places; see Article I, Sec 2; Article 1, Sec 9; and Article IV, Sec 2).
Still, two bills introduced in the Michigan Senate and House, respectively, would make it difficult, if not impossible, to have conversations and accurate education on race and racism.
🔵 Demand #3: Hire More Black Teachers in our Schools. 🔵
Newly released data revealed that 90% of Michigan's teachers are white. Teachers of color make up the remaining 10%. This is in comparison to the overall K-12 student body in Michigan, which is just 66% white.
Specifically, Black students make up 18% of the student population, but only 7% of teachers are Black.
Alongside the Michigan Civil Rights Commission releasing the report containing these data and disparities, the State Board of Education has set a commitment to cultivate a teacher population whose demographics more accurately reflects the students.
This isn't a new problem, though. This continues to be a systemic issue, despite overwhelming evidence that having a teacher of the same race at least once, increases the likelihood for students of color to succeed in the classroom.
🔵 Demand #4: Fund counselors, not cops. 🔵
The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students for each counselor. Michigan schools, however, averaged 671 students for every counselor in 2019-20. Overall, only 4% of schools met this recommendation. This ratio is among the worst in the country.
To rectify this, a bill that previously had not seen any movement was reintroduced; it would require at least 1 counselor for every 450 enrolled students in K-12 public schools.
District budget priorities have been under debate, especially considering that nationwide, 1.7 million students attend schools with police but no counselors. Local communities have pushed to reallocate law enforcement budgets to increase mental health supports for students, like in Detroit. The approved 2021-22 state budget includes $240 million to improve the number of school psychologists, social workers, counselors and nurses. Unfortunately, this does not represent a long-term commitment to increased funding in this area.