A conversation on equity and education 

Published 5:19 pm Tuesday, February 8, 2022

As conversations in school board meetings and government settings continue to dominate headlines and foster hostility, a town hall was held to help inform folks of what is going on and how to get involved.

The Virginia Chapters of the Mid-Atlantic Region of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. and Virginia Association of Chapters of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. hosted a Public Virtual Town Hall meeting with a focus on “Educating Our Future (K-12) Through Equity & Inclusion” on Feb. 6 virtually on the Virginia Phirst Pham Facebook page and YouTube channel.

These groups are nonpartisan and invited different voices involved with education in Virginia to weigh in on the subject. Two panels discussed Virginia’s current state of education related to their field.

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The first moderator, Traci Deshazor, former deputy secretary of the commonwealth, started the first panel discussion on the hot topic of Critical Race Theory and why some have concerns.

Dr. James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, said Critical Race Theory does not exist in Virginia public schools, and the term is being used to cause divisiveness. Students are only being encouraged to think critically when learning the truth.

Dr. Janice Underwood, former chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for the governor of Virginia,  also weighed in on Critical Race Theory. She said that is why people are scared of it, because they do not understand it and are scared of looking uninformed or racist. According to Underwood, legislatures and teachers need to be able to define it and use it in a sentence, just like third-grade students with their vocabulary words.

“Critical Race Theory is a legitimate framework that comes out of the critical theory scholarship,” she said. “It is a research methodology at the post-graduate level used to examine the way systems of race and racism were legally used to create inequality in all of our systems in formula and formal policies and practices.”

When asked about how COVID-19 has affected the mental, emotional and educational well-being of students, Pam Croom, president of the Virginia Parent Teacher Association, brought up staffing and making sure essential staff is there for students and having mental health teams at schools. She also brought up that some schools have part-time principals who need to be full-time.

Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera answered a question on Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration’s plans for education and approach to charter schools. During his 2021 campaign, there was a great focus on education.

“We are focused very much on restoring excellence for every single child,” she said. “Restoring also may not be the best term, because for lots of communities there hasn’t been excellent education. And one of the things we are going to be spending a lot of time on is getting better about being transparent about which schools and which students are being well served and which ones are not.”

Regarding charter schools, according to Guidera, data has shown that not all students are receiving equal opportunities and hopes that charter schools will help performances improve. However, many of her fellow panelists disagreed.

The panelists agreed that a big step in making a safe and good school is to have the community involved and for those with and without students in the school system to be involved to make sure the best is happening for the students. Panelists encouraged folks to stay in the conversation by joining PTAs and being present, supporting teachers, demanding ARPA funds to be used for education and supporting genuinely helpful legislation.

Before closing the first session, a viewer’s question was presented to the panelists. The question asked how communities can assist teachers and schools to bridge the gap between school years.

Fedderman answered that it is about community schools giving all the elements needed. When parents are involved, there are less misconceived ideas pinning teachers and parents against each other, as collaboration breaks barriers and creates essential, meaningful relationships. According to Fedderman, this can happen in public schools.

“Children are like credit cards; we can either pay now or pay later,” said Fedderman.

The second panel was led by Da’Quan Love, executive director of Virginia State NAACP, and consisted of Virginia legislators and discussed education-related bills they have recently encountered.

Sen. Mamie Locke of District 2 spoke about Senate Bill 1196. This bill would require educators who are seeking or renewing their license to complete cultural sensitivity training to ensure that teachers are aware of the cultural differences of students in their classrooms.

Delegate Briana Sewell spoke on the House Bill 4 roll back efforts of 2020, addressing the school-to-prison pipeline. This legislation could hold life-long consequences for students who could get something on their permanent record as teachers are pressured to over-report incidents that could have a different approach.

Jeff Bourne talked about legislation for the state to properly fund schools. He talked about possible charter schools and how he does not see why they cannot invest more into the public schools instead of dividing attention elsewhere.

“There is a culture war going on, and our public schools are ground zero,” said Bourne.

The panelists agreed that they do not have any productive bipartisan laws at this moment, as education is getting over-politicalized and many of these issues were present before COVID-19.

Underwood and Fedderman rejoined the panel as they discussed the final questions. One viewer asked why the title of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer was changed to Diversity, Opportunity and Inclusion Officer.

“I was told we want to be inclusive of all Virginians,” said Locke. “I said, ‘OK are you telling me that the word equity is not inclusive of all Virginians?’”

When asking for a definition of the two words and how they saw this working, she did not receive an answer. Underwood also responded that opportunity is what everyone wants, but equity is how to get there.

To watch the full town hall or stay informed on future events, follow VA Phirst Pham on Facebook and YouTube.