This spring, Washington officially recognized Juneteenth, June 19, as a legal state holiday, commemorating the day in 1865 when the last enslaved Black Americans learned they were free.
Juneteenth is a powerful day of remembrance for me, and I applaud Gov. Jay Inslee and our Legislature for officially marking this important day in Black American history in our nation.
Yet, while we’ve come a long way in the last 156 years, we cannot let the celebrations drown out the reality that the same racism that fueled slavery and the Jim Crow South still infects our communities today. One has to look no further than the state of public education in Washington to see the disparate impact that racism continues to have on Black youth.
As a Black parent raising my son in Washington’s public education system that has not treated him fairly, we have experienced firsthand the trap doors that lead to the school-to-prison pipeline, like overly punitive discipline policies, over enrollment in certain special education categories and a lack of culturally responsive family engagement.
Luckily, we found a high-quality charter public school in our community that provided him the supportive education he wasn’t receiving in a traditional public school. This charter public school cared enough to get him on a trajectory to be ready to attend a STEM public high school. Too many of our Black boys and girls don’t get this opportunity.
In 2019, only 42% of Black students were proficient in English language arts on our state test, compared to 67% of their white peers. Even more outrageous, only 28% of Black students were proficient in math, compared to 56% of white peers. Twenty-eight percent! If that doesn’t raise alarm bells for you, I don’t know what will.
Our Black students overwhelmingly are not receiving the education they deserve. In a state committed to equity, we need every tool possible to help Black students attain the education they need to be able to survive and thrive. It’s also worth noting that, while the opportunity gaps for young people of color, like my son, are gaping, frankly too many white students also are not receiving an education that will set them up for success in life.
More of the same isn’t working. We need fewer excuses, political fighting and finger pointing and greater prioritization to ensure we have all the tools to close gaps and deliver an equitable, quality education to Washington’s Black students and students of color.
While we made some gains this past legislative cycle, like investments in early learning and wraparound services, I was extremely disappointed to see so many Democrats look the other way on key issues of equity. We saw attempts to lower graduation standards, exclude equity funding for the high quality charter public schools that are making good progress to close gaps for students, and efforts to implement tracking systems that are inconsistent with Black student goals for postsecondary experiences that lead to good earning potential jobs and a better life.
I am mystified that despite having the third strongest accountability law and system in the country on public charter schools, we are still fighting over the critical oxygen needed to simply deliver a high quality, public option to families in desperate need for a better education.
Every child deserves to go to a public school with caring educators and where they can leave the Washington K-12 system with the reading, math, and cognitive skills they need to succeed in their next step. It breaks my heart that politics and ideology will starve off this opportunity.
To all the legislators marking Juneteenth this year, I challenge you to make a commitment all year to Washington’s Black students and families. It is not enough to mark a day on the calendar. We must work together to fight against racism every day and to fight for a more equitable future.