(Photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

A barber I went to as a kid was more of a mentor than I realized. Al was an outgoing, white-haired, retired Detroit firefighter who gave advice whether you wanted it or not. Once he said, “you’re either putting the fire out or you’re letting it burn… there ain’t nothin’ in between.” I remember nodding in agreement and disagreeing silently, thinking, “nothing’s simply black and white… too much gray in the world.” Like many other things Al said, that one has come back to me recently.    

Mike S. Rafferty (courtesy photo)

In early March, Gov. Whitmer signed an executive order to close K-12 schools over public health concerns because of the spread of the novel coronavirus. Teachers and students were forced to stay home, superintendents quickly moved to implement broad-based online learning, and parents were thrown into the role of teacher and tutor. Everyone was moving into uncharted territory. 

Before the pandemic, futurists predicted virtual learning as a universal standard, while  the rest of us debated its merits and likelihood. We also spent a great deal of time experiencing, understanding and debating inequitable investments in education and quality between Black and White communities.  

COVID-19 quarantines have settled the debate and expedited futurist predictions — virtual learning is, and likely will be, part of the “new normal” in education. As for the latter, validation came when Governor Whitmer and the state of Michigan settled the Gary B. vs. Snyder lawsuit, thereby acknowledging the longstanding disinvestment in and deliberate indifference to Detroit schools, which denied schoolchildren access to literacy.   

Sixty-six years after Brown vs. the Board of Education, this decision marked a significant step toward ensuring children in Detroit and across Michigan have the right to a quality education. Unfortunately, Michigan’s Republican-led legislature asked a federal court to reconsider the decision, calling it a “precedent-setting error of grave and exceptional public importance.” A majority of judges on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals voted to rehear the lawsuit … again.  

While Gov. Whitmer and the judges who heard the case were “putting out the fire,” it would seem that by seeking to have the decision reviewed would be an effort to “let it burn,” no? Now, even though a decision was made, the fate of equitable education lies in the balance… again.

School districts with a majority white student population receive $23 billion more funding nationally than those in school districts mostly comprising students of color. According to a report from EdBuild, for every student enrolled, the average white school district receives $2,226 more per student than a nonwhite school district. While I’ve heard this justified by differences in tax base, data show that high-poverty districts serving mostly students of color receive about $1,600 less per student than the national average while districts that are predominately white and poor receive about $130 less.  

When we factor in virtual learning as the new normal, disparities in education seem to widen exponentially. One in three African Americans and Hispanics don’t have access to computer technology in their homes. Similarly, 35 percent of black households and 29 percent of Hispanic households don’t have broadband.  

Detroit is often referenced as the biggest urban city with the greatest digital divide where more than 90% of its schoolchildren don’t have access to devices or internet connections adequate for education. Fortunately, a coalition of Detroit’s leading businesses and philanthropic organizations donated $23 million in April to provide Detroit public schoolchildren with computer tablets, high-speed internet and technical support. This was a great step to close learning gaps and move education for 50,000 children into the 21st century.  

For some, this may seem more like a great leap forward than a step since tens of millions of dollars have been invested in tens of thousands of children. Before I give us credit for having gone that far, though, I consider the more than 100,000 children in Detroit who don’t attend its Public Schools and the many others across the state and the country plagued by disparate access who don’t reap these rewards.  

 Making matters worse, the same legislators who asked for the Gary B. case to be reconsidered have cut K-12 education budgets by $2 billion, making any chance for government investment in digital equity at scale a pipe dream. Shouldn’t these lawmakers have explored every other option, including using the state’s rainy-day fund or calling for immediate federal stimulus relief for states, before taking away funds from our most vulnerable and precious assets?

This isn’t an isolated issue and risks being a tide that sinks all boats. The nation’s economy will suffer without equitable education and workforce practices. Before COVID-19, research showed that closing the earnings gap would increase GDP by more than $5 trillion and corporate profit by more than $300 billion per year by 2030. 

Quite frankly, we’ve chosen leaders who seem all too willing to let us burn and the system that nurtures our children along with us. If that isn’t acceptable to you, then put the fire out. Make sure your state and federal legislators know you want:

Digital technology must be a utility. One thing that made America great in the first place was our ability to invest in utility and transportation infrastructure at a scale that ensured all Americans had access. Robbing our kids of access to education by taking away budgets that allow us to invest in infrastructure for their future is letting the fire burn 

Quality education is a birthright. Another thing that made America great were its institutional declarations of equity: “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all,” and “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We also tend to believe that one builds a better life through education and hard work. So why deprive any of us?

In the words of Ibram X. Kendi, “A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups.” He later says, in his own words, there’s no in between. While more pointed and profound than Al’s words, they’re not as prophetic…  

Mike S. Rafferty is the president & CEO of New Detroit, Inc., a coalition of leaders working to achieve racial understanding and racial equity in metropolitan Detroit.

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