Ari Armstrong, Douglas County, Elections, Uncategorized

Armstrong: The ‘equity’ debate in Douglas County schools

The heated Douglas County school board meeting Friday evening (February 4) was painful to watch (and I watched every excruciating moment of it online). In the end, the conservative majority voted to oust superintendent Corey Wise, after Wise asked that the discussion take place in public rather than in executive session.

Mostly the meeting was about how the four conservative board members and the three union-aligned members felt betrayed by each other, and various board members alternately fought back anger and tears. Wise cracked, “I don’t know if you want to fire me or fire each other.” As I repeated on Twitter, it’s so weird how government-run schools get so political.

The day before, Thursday, some 1,500 teachers in the county called in “sick” to protest the majority’s efforts toward potentially replacing Wise. Whatever one thinks about the majority’s actions—and I think those members did not handle the matter well—teachers who walked out sacrificed the welfare of the students in their care to score political points. Video of discussions by some of the people who helped organize the walkout is disturbing.

The debate over ‘equity’

Here I want to address one aspect of the divisions inflaming the board that contributed to tensions leading to the walkout and to Wise’s release, the debate over the district’s equity policy.

Colorado Public Radio offers some of the background: “In November, a conservative slate of school board candidates won big in Douglas County, promising more parental control. Immediately, the board . . . eliminated the district mask mandate and passed a new resolution that some worry is the first step in dismantling the district’s equity policy [that] calls for establishing a system for identifying racist practices and discriminatory behaviors.” (Note the “some worry” line by which the author squirrels editorial content into a news story.)

So what is “equity,” and why would anyone have a problem with the district’s policy? By my lights, most of the text of the equity commitment, passed by the previous board last March, is sensible.

The document promotes “an inclusive culture to ensure all students, staff, and community members feel safe and valued.” Says the document: “The School District shall offer and afford every student and staff member equitable educational opportunities regardless of race, color, ancestry, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, religion, national origin, marital status, disability, socio-economic status, or eligibility for special education services.” That’s standard language that the conservative majority endorses.

Equity “refers to providing all individuals and groups of individuals with fairness and respecting their opportunities to participate in and benefit from the District’s programs.” That is fine. In broader usage, of course, “equity” can take on more ambitious meanings. But here the context is public schools.

Let me try to give an example of “equity” that might resonate with conservatives. Jon Caldara, head of the Independence Institute (which publishes Complete Colorado), recently wrote, “Online learning is no learning at all for my 16-year-old son, Chance. Given his severe disability [he has Down syndrome] he needs hands-on, in-person education with actual three-dimensional teachers, therapists and peers.” In other words, treating all students the same doesn’t always work. Online learning works fine for some students, but not for others. The equitable approach is to give students who need it extra help and support.

The main thing I object to is that the document equates a person’s “identity” to “one’s race, color, ancestry, creed, sex, sexual orientation,” etcetera, plus “one’s lived experiences and self-expression in any given environment.” To me, your identity has little to do with the accidents of your birth and mostly to do with your ideas, actions, and chosen values. The equity document seems to basically want to define people by their race and other like characteristics. At least the line about “self-expression” makes some room for individualism. Another issue is that “diversity” here pertains to diversity of race and the like and omits diversity of thought.

Let me try to sum up where I think the two sides are coming from. The camp promoting equity reasonably wants all students to feel accepted, to not be bullied or otherwise mistreated, and to succeed in school. The camp skeptical of this push for equity worries about schools diverting time away from traditional academics toward an obsessive treatment of race and gender. Basically, this camp wants teachers to teach core subjects, not to try to turn students into Progressive activists.

The new board’s resolution

The new conservative-led school board approved a resolution on January 22 asking the superintendent to “recommend potential changes” to the equity policy consistent with principles laid out in the resolution.

The resolution confirms that Douglas County “respects and cares for the individual dignity of every student and staff member” and “wants every student and staff member to feel welcome.” So what’s the rub?

The resolution rejects “any policy or practice that wrongfully prioritizes group identity over individual beliefs, actions, and experiences.” It explicitly endorses equality of opportunity. The resolution also supports an environment in which students and families “can freely express views and opinions that may be counter to others’ views and opinions and are free from superficial attempts to ascribe group identity characteristics to his or her beliefs.” I think all of that is perfectly reasonable, so long as people don’t express “opinions” in school in a way that demeans other students.

Notably, the resolution explicitly says that, “for example, the horrors of race-based slavery and segregation . . . has been and will continue to be a part of every child’s education in the Douglas County School District.” So there doesn’t seem to be any attempt to strip uncomfortable facts from history; quite the opposite.

I don’t see how people can in good faith read the resolution and find much objectionable about it, except maybe critics who argue that the emphasis on equality leaves insufficient room for equity. But that is a fairly abstruse point with little on-the-ground relevance to schools. No one is arguing, for example, that children who need extra help in math should not get it because every student should get perfectly “equal” instruction. Clearly what the board means is that people are equal in inherent dignity and rights.

It’s hard to argue that the conservative majority handled the replacement of the superintendent well. That many DougCo teachers made students and their parents pay the price by shutting down schools for a day is disheartening.

Regarding specifically the equity policy, the demonization of the conservative majority is out of hand. Critics should try to explain what specific problems they have with the text of the resolution and not just wage a smear campaign. Reasonable people can agree that all students should feel welcome and should be cherished as individuals.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism.  He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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