Stay in public schools: The anti-racism we need from white families during the pandemic

There is another plot twist unraveling in the reopening of public schools this fall, something predictable yet relatively invisible in much current news. Public schools across cities and inner ring suburbs are at risk of losing significant funding through the loss of enrollment. This is especially true for schools that do not offer an in-person model that meets the desires of white parents. Based on survey data from the Minnesota Department of Education, white families are most likely to send their kids back to school in-person in the fall. This aligns with EmbraceRace’s statistics that three of four parents of color are likely to say they want school to remain closed until the risk of COVID-19 transmission is as low as possible, compared with one of two white parents.

In a survey from Robbinsdale Area Schools (a mix of inner and outer-ring suburbs), 29.5% of families desired face-to-face learning, most of whom were from the western suburbs. Historically, districts have increased class sizes and cut programming and equity positions when they lose funds because of  lower enrollments.

In the Facebook group “Teaching During COVID-19,” more than 200 teachers from rural, suburban, private, and charter schools discussed their fall planning for hybrid models or full in-person instruction. However, large urban districts across the country have committed to start the year with distance learning. In doing so, they are valuing the lives of their children, families, and educators, including many Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities with increased health risks connected to COVID-19. Teachers are able to plan lessons without a predictable change in modality, aiming to increase engagement, equity, and learning (in a pandemic). At the same time, based on the decisions that white public school parents may make to abandon these schools by fleeing to charter or private schools, to outer-ring suburban schools, or to private pods (offering potentially empty promises of hybrid or in-person teaching), their school enrollment and the funding of public education is put at serious risk.

What does this have to do with anti-racism?

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After the viral video of the killing by police of unarmed community member George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, the local youth-driven uprising in the fight for Black lives and against police brutality has been amplified by national and global outrage, despite a pandemic. This sustained uprising has led to broad and vague fiscal commitments by philanthropists, organizations, and companies. Education has been at the forefront, as people clamor to learn more about anti-racism. White people in particular have asserted a new or deepened commitment to social justice, and they often ask, “But what can I do?”

In the case of COVID-19 and back-to-school parent choices, we have one specific suggestion: For all public school parents, keep your children enrolled in their current or local public school.

  1. If you chose to start a pod, keep kids home, or hire a tutor, keep your children enrolled in local public schools as well. Funding for public schools is a societal good and supports our democracy, now and in the future. Similar to voting yes for a public school referendum, funding public schools through sustained or increased enrollment benefits the city and society, from improved public health to increased civic engagement. As education scholars such as Gloria Ladson-Billings note, white America owes Black students a large educational debt, and funding public schools is one part of paying back that debt.
  2. Well-resourced, culturally relevant public schools are an important facet of society that values Black lives and BIPOC children. Parents and community members who care about equity can influence their public schools. They can also advocate for federal and state funding. Leaning into your local public school is an anti-racist move to support schools through enrollment, advocacy, and community building.
  3. Ensuring public schools remain robust ensures that all children will continue to have options — it’s in their best interest, too. Educational scholars such as Pedro Noguera argue public schools are one of the few remaining public institutions in the country that are required to serve all children, regardless of race, income, geography, language, dis/ability, or citizenship status. Maintaining funding for public schools through and after the pandemic ensures that these schools can continue to offer learning options for all children.

Especially for those of us who have greater financial means to make creative choices, we can support our kids without hurting our public schools. We can radically reimagine the school year. We can work to create equity in pandemic schooling. And, if we think outside our pods, we can do it through the lens of anti-racism, equity, and mutual support.

Anita Chikkatur and Abby Rombalski at a rally and march supporting youth for anti-racism and police-free schools in Minnesota.

Courtesy of Anita Chikkatur

Anita Chikkatur and Abby Rombalski at a rally and march supporting youth for anti-racism and police-free schools in Minnesota.

Abby Rombalski, Ph.D., is a white public school parent and a lecturer at the University of Minnesota. Anita Chikkatur is an Asian American associate professor at Carleton College. Both are members of the Education for Liberation Network MN.

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