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Would Black Students Thrive With The Same Focus California Gives English Learners?

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Dr. Margaret Fortune/ President, CEO Fortune School of Education

In a state known for its progressivism, you may find it shocking that Black Californians live under a mandate that nothing in particular can be done for Black children in our public schools as a matter of law.  This is true despite the fact that according to the California Department of Education, 67 percent of Black students don’t read or write at grade level. In math, nearly 80 percent of Black children do not perform at grade level and 86 percent are below grade level in science.  That means that Black Californians are not being prepared to participate in the STEM economy for which our state has been the epicenter of innovation for the world.

Californians have become notorious for our misplaced values. If you go to a restaurant in California, you can’t have a plastic straw because a fish in the ocean might choke on it. But if you are a Black child in California, where Democrats hold a super majority in the Legislature and the Governor’s office, the state will not protect you from receiving an inferior education, even though the evidence points to the fact that the vast majority of Black children in particular are being failed by the Golden State’s public schools. 

In 2020, the same year that Californians packed the streets chanting “Black Lives Matter,” the majority of California voters went to the polls to defeat a ballot initiative that would have cleared the way for the state to provided targeted support for Black public school children by repealing the state’s 25-year-old ban on considering an individual’s race in public education.  

However, there are some insiders in Democratic politics who remain determined to bring about positive change. The California Democratic Party Black Caucus has proposed a set of amendments to the education plank of the party’s platform and is holding a series of hearings calling on Democrats to specifically advocate for closing achievement gaps and addressing funding inequities for Black students like the party does for other groups of students. Black students make up 5 percent of the 6 million children in California’s public schools. And while the state rightly provides extra funding, instructional support and school accountability for certain high need students, there are 80,000 Black youth who do not qualify for supplemental funding because they are not low income, English Learners or foster youth. 

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond recently appointed me to his Black Student Achievement Taskforce.  In these conversations, thought leaders on Black education are openly asking the question, should all of our Black students qualify for extra support?  Is it right that 69 percent of Black students graduate from high school ineligible to even apply to a state college, like the University of California or the California State University?  

One of the goals of the Superintendent’s Black Student Achievement Taskforce is to design a legislative package that addresses Black student achievement in California public schools. It’s time to take back up the equity bill Secretary of State Shirley Weber introduced in 2018 when she was a member of the California Legislature. Although AB 2635 (Weber) did not specifically identify Black students, they would have qualified for extra funding based on standardized test scores in math and English language arts. At the time, Weber said, “Now is the time to fix education inequities and target resources to students in need.” 

In addition, California’s English Learner Roadmap, adopted by the State Board of Education in 2017, is a model for setting a policy vision for Black students.  What’s needed for Black children is a comprehensive and systematic approach like the state’s roadmap for English learners which states that “English learners are the shared responsibility of all educators and that all levels of the educational system have a role to play in ensuring the access and achievement of the over 1.3 million English learners who attend California schools.” I agree, and the same applies to over 300,000 Black children too.  

California should apply the same comprehensive and robust set of laws, regulations and funding that it has for English learners to its Black students.  If it did, results would be better for the state’s Black children.  

Editor’s Note: Dr. Margaret Fortune is the President/CEO of Fortune School, a system of nine, K-12 public charter schools with over 2,300 students focused on closing the Black achievement gap by preparing students for college.  She is a State Delegate on the California Democratic Party (CDP) State Central Committee where she also is an elected member of the Executive Board of the CDP Black Caucus. Fortune is Treasurer of National Action Network (NAN) Sacramento and has been an education adviser to two California Governors.  She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government.


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