[Note: this article originally published on Nov. 3. It is reappearing on the front page in light of the Jill Woolbright book-banning issue, which relates to the equity matter.]
In a move that left one school board member stunned and others agreeing to a change that seemed almost entirely the result of vague, polemical attacks on the word on social media and in charged but limited national discussions, the Flagler County School Board on Tuesday agreed to drop the word “equity” from its goals.
The word will be replaced with “student success.”
“I can’t even believe that we’re having this conversation. I really, truly can’t believe we’re having this conversation,” Board member Colleen Conklin said. “All of the work that this district has done, everything that has taken place over the years, and the conversations that we’ve had with community members and stakeholders, that we are now going to remove a key term in our strategic plan because we have a political group that is not happy with the use of the term equity. I think this conversation is absolutely ridiculous.”
The school board hasn’t precisely defined “equity,” nor had it felt the need to year after year when it would routinely hear its administration present equity report after equity report, as required by law (as it did for example on July 20). But Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt on Tuesday defined it as “how our intention is to be deliberate with our resources to ensure that every student has an opportunity to be successful.” The National School Board Association defines it this way: “Educational equity is the intentional allocation of resources, instruction, and opportunities according to need, requiring that discriminatory practices, prejudices, and beliefs be identified and eradicated.”
The school board and the administration have been working for months on their “strategic plan,” a blueprint for overall goals and principles that define the way the district operates, and to what end. The completed document hasn’t yet been publicized, not even to the board members. But its draft in outline has. It includes–or included–six goals: Academics, equity, social and emotional well being, talent, improving operational efficiencies, and communications.
None of the goals have been controversial. For example, on academics, the goal is to “Increase reading and math achievement for students as identified through state and
progress monitoring assessments.”
Equity: “Increase equitable access for all students to a high quality educational experience” by ensuring that all students have access to accelerated coursework, “with an emphasis on students who are traditionally underrepresented,” implementing K-12 classroom to career pathways at every school, a daily focus on students with disabilities, and carrying out what’s called–in the ever-present lingo of educational bureaucracies–a “Multi-Tiered System of Support.” What that means is, again, that all students must have “equitable access to high-quality instruction and interventions to meet all student needs,” according to one definition.
As recently as August, Mittelstadt told the board–with no objections–how “the term equity is critically important to all of us. We want to ensure that all of our nine brick and mortar schools regardless of, at the end in December, whenever the board’s pleasure is to adopt the new rezoning policy–families, wherever they reside, are going to get a quality education that is going to be a similar experience, whether you’re one of our five elementary schools or the two middle schools and the two high school. So we are very much invested in that whole process. And part of that I think is one of the buckets that’s coming forward when we talk about our strategic plan process.”
The goals are restatements of core strategies most school boards have carried out in one way or another for years, tweaking language and details here and there while keeping principles recognizable. Talent is focused on recruiting top quality staff. “Operational efficiencies” get into the details of work order completion rates and school lunch participation rates and other issues that draw little to no public interest. The strategic plan isn’t even wholly the product of Flagler schools, but a derivative of a company, DeliverEd, that helps districts tailor their goals accordingly.
Mittlestadt herself was not necessarily proposing a word change, though she’d been leaning that way after sending an email to board members suggesting “student success” as a replacement. She was asking the school board for direction Tuesday in light of recent public comments–and comments by board members themselves–about the word “equity.” Weeks ago some parents had brought up the word critically in the context of a previously proposed rezoning plan, inaccurately accusing the board for letting “equity” drive its rezoning approach. The word, never controversial until recently, has taken on an ideological shade along with the backlash against “critical race theory,” anti-racism efforts in schools and LGBTQ-friendly policies and procedures.
“It does not change where we need to go by amending the title,” Mittelstadt said, “but the intent for the district staff and why we use the word equity was because we feel Flagler schools has certain subgroups within our demographics where our gaps have just not closed. And we wanted to be so intentional on how we moved our work forward. And so that’s why the team came up with that particular title for that goal.”
Terms like “equity” and “critical race theory” are usually thrown willy-nilly with little understanding about what they mean. But they’ve developed powerful coded meanings, translating into effective rhetorical tools, rallying and energizing various subsets of the GOP base in the latest campaigns of the culture wars: Glenn Youngkin, who Tuesday won the governorship in Virginia, had campaigned against critical race theory and for “parents’ rights” up to and including their right to keep their children from being assigned race-conscious books like “Beloved,” by the Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison.
“I think it’s become such a inflammatory word in the population,” Board member Janet McDonald said, “that I think student success, which is our goal, can get us there and be more uniformly acknowledged by people that that’s really what our strategic plan is all about. Because the other just brings in attention to something that it’s not.” (The renamed goal would be “student support” rather than student success.) Board member Jill Woolbright said likewise. “I don’t think that anyone would have issue with student support. However there are, I’ve heard from many, that have an issue with equity, and whether it’s a misunderstanding or what we intend or not, that’s still their beef, and if we can get the same thing accomplished with a more acceptable word, I don’t see a reason not to change.” Woolbright, like McDonald, often refers to hearing from “many” in the community to lend support to her positions, but without indicating who the “many” are, or how many the many represent.
“Equity is such a misinterpreted phrase, it fits whatever people want it to fit,” Board member Cheryl Massaro said. “No matter how we tried to explain it, it’s still going to fit how they want it to fit. So I think that probably a change in language will make life much easier and more understandable to our families, and that’s the goal. So I support that change.”
Conklin, acknowledging that she was in the minority, called it a “travesty” if the term was changed. Board Chairman Trevor Tucker said he didn’t care either way, but said that was moot, too, since he already saw a three-member majority for a change.
The board’s decision is in fact the culmination of a limited but roiling local debate that harks back to the board’s adoption last year of equity-based procedures that relate to LGBTQ students. Randall Bertrand, the parent of a transgender student, applauded the board at the time, but spoke words that anticipated this latest development: “People are going to come to you and they’re going to want to tell you stories about a boogey man, providing equity to our LGBTQ students will somehow suddenly make our schools unsafe,” he told the board at an April 2021 meeting. “I learned long ago that if someone talks to me about the boogey man, I need to carefully consider their motives. Words have meaning. Not only what we say. But we don’t say. I’ve read the equity support procedures. While it doesn’t read exactly what I would like it to say, it strikes a fair balance between protecting kids taking into account existing state and federal laws.”
By October 19, a different speaker who has become a frequent presence at school board meetings–Chanel Channing–was claiming to the board that “equity is what could lead to that collectivism, which then goes to socialism and communism, and that’s why I think you’re going to find such pushback on equity.” She later raised concerns about “the transgender connection with equity.” Another speaker, Jessico Bowman, described equity as a “a pentacle of CRT.”
However preposterously false the statements, they were part of the evolution that led to the board’s decision on Tuesday.