ALBANY — Top state education leaders on Monday voiced support for calls to adopt an “education agenda for justice” that could include more black history, global studies and other subjects.
Adelaide Sanford, a former member of the board and longtime education activist, joined Monday’s monthly Regents meeting and implored current regents to advance a “Regents-dominated curriculum reform” that would increase education in black history, African history, global studies and other subjects core to understanding the state of marginalized people.
“I challenge you to develop an educational agenda for justice,” she said after an impassioned plea to the Board of Regents.
Sanford said that the police officers responsible for brutalizing or killing black Americans in custody were not likely taught about the country’s long history of oppression of black people or about the ways black people have contributed to American culture and society. She said those officers likely learned little about the communities they are charged with protecting and that education systems could play a critical role in improving community and police relations.
“What did they learn about people who have been set aside?” she asked. “You don’t teach the police anything and then put them in a position to deal with the most vulnerable people and they have no context. The only experience they have with them is where there is a paralysis moment.”
While the Board of Regents expressed support for Sanford’s comments, they did not discuss details of how that could be achieved.
“All of us have been called to action to educate for justice,” Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said. “We are taking that challenge and moving opportunities forward.”
Regents Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown said he was still haunted by the words of George Floyd, who called out for his mother as he was killed a police officer kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and suggested schools in the state should do more to teach black history as a core part of education programs.
“We must look for ways to contribute to the remedy of the many years of unequal treatment of black men in America, including right here in the state,” Regents Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown said, adding teaching more black history would be a good place to start. “I’m sick and tired of people demonstrating a commitment to black history in February and forgetting about it the other 11 months.”
Members of the board also tied that broader mission to planning for reopening schools to students and educators, potentially as early as September. The state Education Department plans to hold its first regional meetings of its “Reopening Task Force” next week, with four meetings scheduled across the state this month.
Regent Lester Young pointed out that the same communities that were disproportionately affected by the pandemic are the communities that have long suffered from under-investment in education and worse academic outcomes for students. He said plans for reopening schools must take that into account.
“How do we ensure that throughout this process the notions of racial equity and doing something about existing disparities is front and center,” he asked.
Education Department officials will use the feedback from the regional meetings to develop proposed guidance and regulations that will be discussed at the Regents’ July meeting.
The reopening task force is set to address the following topics: health and safety; teaching and learning; social-emotional needs; special education; multilingual learners; digital equity and access; budget; transportation, facilities and nutrition, and; staffing and human resources.
The guidance will likely outline for districts requirements they must meet if they welcome students and teachers back to schools in the fall, but it’s unclear how the Education Department’s work will pair with a reopening task force and a separate committee charged with “reimagining education” run out of the Governor’s Office.
Rosa also implicitly criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration as she expressed frustration in an inability to expedite funding approval under the state’s Smart School Bond program, which provides technology funding to districts, and has been looked at in recent months as a way to increase remote education capacity in district. The governor’s budget office sets the meetings needed to approve funding requests.
Rosa also made another plea for increased education funding, arguing the funding disparities Cuomo has referenced in recent speeches – districts spending as much as $35,000 per student, while others spend half that – must be addressed to enable a fair education system.
“To continue to talk about how do we get there without financial investment, it’s just conversation,” Rosa said.