Protecting Our Educators, Safeguarding Our Future

Inequities in education persist throughout America’s school communities, whether it’s access to the internet so students can do homework or access to care and resources teachers need to avoid mental and physical burnout they experience very day.

“When people know better, they tend to do better—no matter what,” said Florida Representative Felicia Robinson, a 29-year education veteran and education policy chair for the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. “It’s really important to educate our children because they’re our future, but in order to do that well, we need to make sure our teachers are protected. If teachers have support, then our children will have what they need.”

Angela Williams, Senior Director of Government and External Affairs for STRIDE, a virtual learning provider, shared how online and hybrid learning exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic and both remain viable educational options for students of all ages and abilities for families around the world. It’s also a great option for educators with compromised immune systems who are hesitant to re-enter the classroom but want to continue their teaching career.

Williams indicated more African American families are increasingly choosing online education or homeschooling. STRIDE serves a lot of urban and low-income students as well as students with special needs. Williams says safety also is a big issue as bullying issues persist in classrooms, so parents pull kids out of brick-and-mortar learning. Virtual learning is also helpful for neurodivergent students who require an Individual Education Plan (IEP) as well as for military families who move frequently and live outside the U.S.

Beyond young students, Stride also provides support for lifelong learners and career development. Certificates can help adult learners fill a gap in workforce development, including the healthcare industry, which is where the biggest demand currently exists. Career development opportunities exist for students to learn about various sectors and jobs within those sectors.

None of this online or hybrid education can exist without access to broadband high-speed internet. Legislators can support the ACP and equitable funding so students can access quality education not based on zip codes, graduate with a high school diploma and matriculate to college.

Black students, whether they’re learning online or in school, might be looking to attend an Historically Black College or University (HBCU) now more than ever after they graduate from high school. This is due in part to the Supreme Court’s June 2023 decision to repeal affirmative action and reject race-conscious admissions at colleges and universities around the nation. However, cautioned NBCSL panelist Dr. Lesia Crumpton-Young, CEO of Greatness Gurus Corporation, there’s an inequity of funding and HBCUs across the country may not be prepared for the uptick in intake.

For example, before starting her company, Dr. Crumpton-Young served as the 13th President of Texas Southern University. They saw a spike of enrollments but were not properly funded—and have not been for nearly 100 years—and had to house students in hotels.

HBCUs face additional issues as well. For example, though HBCUs have some of the highest levels of student satisfaction, their students often take more than four years to graduate, often due to outstanding environmental factors according to Dr. Crumpton-Young. And, while HBCUs graduate some of the highest number of lawyers, they struggle to graduate Black doctors due to fewer medical schools on campuses.

Dr. Crumpton-Young encouraged state lawmakers to represent their HBCU when talking with colleagues, advocate for more funding and influence boards to ensure a pipeline of prepared leaders as HBCU presidents to help protect HBCU institutions and preserve their future.

States can play a big role in the future fight for equity in education. Kimberly Jones, NBCSL panelist and President of the Council for Opportunity in Education, reminded state legislators that as far back as 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled no constitutional right to an equal education, and, as a result, the federal government seceded education to the states.

The Pell Institute, the research division of The Council for Opportunity in Education, has been looking into equity indicators and produces a biannual report about who goes to college and who graduates from college. They look at 24 different measure to outline how different states compare on equity factors. For example, they found an explosion of higher education in the past 70-80 years with more than a third of the population today compared to only 5% of the population in the 1940s who have a college degree. Most of the growth is in the northeast, states with the lowest poverty rates, while the least amount of growth is in the south, or the states with the highest poverty rates.

States, explained Jones, need to look at their data and make improvements on equity factors to improve educational outcomes. NBCSL panelist Marvin Pendarvis, South Carolina State Representative, agreed.

“So much can be pointed to economics,” said Pendarvis, who started asking questions about barriers to education success. “Some state legislatures are seriously underfunding, and we can do a better job.”

After his state responded to a 2014 Supreme Court decision that found that South Carolina only had to serve a minimally adequate education, they’ve had to change and prioritize what education means to students to set them up for success and strengthen the pipeline into college and workforce.  That meant focusing on the areas that influence and impact education such as investing in housing, healthcare and infrastructure.

“When you look at communities where so many issues exist, you’ll see they’re lacking resources for children to be successful,” said Pendarvis. “If we don’t do enough to make sure they’re supporting the whole child, we’re not giving them a fighting chance to go out and be successful.”

Pendarvis implored fellow Black state legislators to get their data and find out where their states rank in particular areas so they can talk with colleagues about what policies and proposals can be put forward to address education. And, he suggested to look beyond creating bills to positively impact African Americans in their communities.

Fredrick Ingram, secretary-treasurer for the American Federation of Teachers; Tanya Coats, president of the Tennessee Education Association; and Curtis Valentine, co-director of the Reinventing America’s Schools Project from the Progressive Policy Institute joined the NBCSL panel to discuss how different policies are impacting educators and children across the country.

Coats promoted the importance of establishing and fostering relationships to help keep resources and retain black educators. Ingram echoed that the existential threat right now is a teacher shortage, and while there is an emphasis on recruiting states must also retain educators they have.

“There are great teachers running out of classrooms every day,” said Ingram. “We need to do something to usher Black men into education, and it starts with a conversation.”

That conversation, explained Ingram, must include paying teachers like other professions. Teaching in a classroom is both an art and a science, and teachers should be compensated.

Valentine is an historian of African American history and education and a descendant of the first Black person to ever attend college in America back in 1794 at Princeton University. He said the number-one profession for college-educated Black men is teaching, but, replied Ingram, there are far too many K–12 classrooms in this country that do not have Black teachers.

HBCUs, said Ingram, can help bridge the gap and provide a pipeline of Black students with terminal degrees and build generational wealth by educating the populace. Ancestors who helped create today’s HBCUs helped pave the way, but there should be no need to rely on them to save modern education. Instead, suggested Ingram, look ahead at the next Mary Bethune and Booker T. Washington. The time, said Coats, is now; don’t wait.

Valentine reminded state legislators that there is no single solution to what’s happening to the education system, but it’s up to the members of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators to find a piece of something they can take back to their community and get to work—don’t just sit on it.