Humanities, Politics & society, Research

Berkeley Conversations: Race, law and education

Panel discussed deeply-grooved roadblocks to racial equity in K-12 education — and ways to surmount them

Berkeley Conversations
A panel of experts discussed the intersection of race, law and education on Monday, September 14. (UC Berkeley video)

Deeply-grooved roadblocks to racial equity in K-12 education — and ways to surmount them — were the focal point of a compelling, livestreamed Berkeley Conversations event with four experts on Monday.

Prudence Carter, dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, used key historical moments to show where she said opportunities to recalibrate a “continual cycle of accumulated disadvantage” went awry.

She described why Black and Latinx veterans could not access the GI Bill as readily as their white counterparts after World War II, why integration was never fully realized after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and how the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act based achievement and attainment on test scores that correlate strongly with school districts’ wealth and income. 

“We had some desegregation, but we never got to integration, which entails a fundamentally deeper level of inclusion, bringing groups away from the margins by centering their own political and economic realities,” Carter said. 

Christopher Edley Jr., a Berkeley Law professor and the school’s former dean, co-chaired the congressionally-chartered national Equity and Excellence Commission from 2011 to 2013. He noted that, given the current direction of federal courts, state constitutions provide a fertile area to assert educational equity rights. 

Citing a lack of oversight for failed policies, Edley said it is “an expression by the political bodies that they weren’t really serious about accountability,” and that lawyers must help hold accountable those responsible for effectively implementing “the promises made by statutes and regulations.” 

Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel (the nation’s largest pro bono law firm), explained how racial gaps in education date back to slavery when it was illegal for slaves to teach their children to read. He said inferior educational opportunities afforded U.S. children of color represents “one of the most defective racist policies ever devised” to subordinate them.

Rosenbaum cited research showing that, in 2009, if the gap between Black and Latinx students and their white counterparts had been closed, it would have produced between $310 billion and $500 billion for America’s gross national product. 

“What does it tell you when a country that defines itself by economic productivity permits that sort of loss to take place?” Rosenbaum said. “It’s not just saying that the children are disposable, … it’s saying this is an educational system driven by racism.” 

Maria Echaveste, president and CEO of the Opportunity Institute, said too much pressure has been put on schools to fix issues that they are “not funded to be able to do, and more importantly are not trained to do.” 

She noted that adversity, trauma and poverty greatly impact development and ability to learn and are endured disproportionately by children of color. To develop the right interventions and supports that create a quality education, she said, “you have to recognize the whole child and not think of this child coming into your classroom as an empty vessel. We need to imbue these principles of whole child equity into our teaching and learning.”