ALBANY –The Board of Regents on Monday adopted a new statewide policy statement that calls on school districts to take up their own diversity and equity policies and consider acknowledging the role racism plays in American society.
The new Regents policy statement says all students benefit when schools focus on diversity, equity and inclusion and that those policies can “empower students from all backgrounds to visualize successful futures for themselves and provide them with a sense of belonging and self worth.”
Board members said it is important for districts across the state, regardless of their demographic makeup, to focus on ways their students are exposed to diverse groups of people and ideas and think about equity through lenses of physical ability, gender and socio-economic status.
The policy states that districts “should consider acknowledging the role that racism and bigotry have played, and continue to play, in the American story.”
The Regents statement notes district-level policy decisions are ultimately a local decision, but makes clear that the board expects districts to adopt such a policy.
“We recognize that the decision to adopt a (diversity, equity and inclusion) policy, as well as the contents of such a policy, are ultimately matters of local discretion,” the policy reads. “However, the Regents believe strongly that there is a moral and an economic imperative to remove the inequities that stand in the way of success for whole segments of New York’s student population.”
The policy statement lays out expectations the board has for school districts across the state, including that “all school districts and institutions of higher education will develop and implement policies and practices that advance diversity, equity and inclusion — and that they will implement such policies and practices with fidelity and urgency.”
The new Regents policy comes as some conservative lawmakers across the country embrace proposals that seek to restrict the ability of schools to teach students about institutional racism, its history and current impacts on communities. Those critical of doing more to teach students about those subjects often derisively refer to the efforts as “critical race theory,” a longstanding theory that emerged in the legal academy.
Regents Chancellor Lester Young on Monday noted the theory’s background, but rejected the notion that the Regents were adopting a critical race theory policy. “That is not what we are proposing,” he said.
“We recognize the role that race and racism plays and we recognize our obligation to remove barriers that have been obstacles for segments of New York state’s population,” Young said. “But by no means are we advocating a race-based education system in New York state.”
The Regents unanimously adopted the policy statement, calling it a major milestone in the board’s work to foster an environment where “all students must feel that they are welcome, they belong, and they are supported in every school.”
“I want to affirm that this is such a formidable document and policy for our Board of Regents,” Regent Frances Wills said during Monday’s meeting. “We are saying this moment is not one we are going to waste to make a difference.”
The policy statement outlines a series of areas district-level policies should aim to address: establishing a district diversity, equity and inclusion committee; examining and updating curriculum, teacher practice and training, and how students are sorted and grouped; engaging family and community members, and; improving workforce diversity.
It also calls on schools to teach new perspectives of old subjects, introducing students to new voices, texts and experiences. The Regents statement urges districts to actively work against “the danger of the single story,” advising districts to ensure “the contributions of all groups are included in the telling of the American story.”
When the Regents discussed the policy statement at its April meeting, Regent Beverly Ouderkirk, who represents the Capital Region and North Country, highlighted the fact that some districts have very few students of color and that those schools need opportunities to expose students to more diversity.
“There are schools where there is no diversity among the student body,” she said. “Let’s not forget that we need to expose some children… We’ve got a flip side to the diversity issue when there isn’t diversity.”
Some school districts have taken up new diversity and equity policies over the last year, including recent policies in Niskayuna and Shenendehowa schools. A committee for months has been working on an equity policy to guide efforts in the Schenectady City School District.
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