After a brief, confusing exile for reasons never entirely explained, Equity is back in the Flagler County school district’s proposed strategic plan, or core goals. The school board at a workshop today agreed to restore the word, which had been replaced with “student support,” and set aside the controversy that had surrounded the word’s use only recently.
The word will be used in a conjunction, as in education equity, an attempt to disarm what objections may yet emerge from its use in the community. School Board member Jill Woolbright, who had supported removing the word previously, said today that the only objection she’d heard was from Steve Furnari, who heads the parent advisory group on exceptional student education. “And that group of people that pushed back said, If you defined it according to state statutes, I’m okay with it.”
The typical objection to equity, voiced a few times by members of the public at board meetings, not just by Furnari, focused on equity’s supposed lurch for “equal outcomes,” meaning that standards would be equalized, or dumbed down, to lower common denominators–an inaccurate interpretation of what equity has meant and how it’s been applied in schools: crudely speaking, the aim is not to bring a student’s 800 SAT scores down to 600, but to raise a student’s 400 score as much as possible. (The analogy more often applies to day to day school work and results in basic skills from reading to math to science.)
The strategic plan lays out six goals: academics, student support (previously, equity), social and emotional well-being, talent (related to hiring and retaining top staff), operational efficiency and communications. Student support means “Increase access for all students to a high quality educational experience.” But it also entails providing different levels of support–and more support–to some students who need it more, in order to close achievement gaps.
Though Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt had previously floated the idea of moving away from “equity” if that’s where the board wanted to go, her administration came to the table today itself ready to push back for a restoration of the word, with or without a conjunction. Deputy Superintendent Bobby Bossardet made the case.
He spoke of “the barriers and unique challenges” students face on a day to day basis, the key word being “unique”: the challenges are not uniform, and have to be addressed individually with “individual supports” to ensure success. “I think it’s important when you say those things that you’ve got to understand that treating everybody equal doesn’t always end up in equal outcomes. And although I can’t say that the work behind this goal is going to guarantee equal outcomes for everybody, we believe that ‘equity’ defined gives us the opportunity to provide all of our students the opportunity for equal success. And that is kind of where we sit as a team. When you look at the work that is done behind this goal work guarantees all of our students the opportunity for equals success. That is the reason why it was presented to you as the word equity. Our team believes that the work behind this won’t change one way or another. But I believe that it is extremely important that we revert back to that.”
School Board member Colleen Conklin, who had at one point been the only voice on the board in favor of keeping “equity” in the plan, unsurprisingly supported the reversion, though it was Board member Cheryl Massaro who had called for reconsidering the issue. She had granted approval to eliminating the word several weeks ago, and last month said she wanted to reconsider. Woolbright and Board member Janet McDonald had aligned for eliminating the word too, and today reversed, saying that as long as the state of Florida uses the word equity and equality interchangeably, it’s not an issue.
“And if jargon gets in the way of people understanding where all of our hearts are–because I think all of our hearts are in the same place–and if we allow one word to interrupt that vision, I think we’re all losing,” McDonald said.
Several people addressed the school board at the beginning of the 3 p.m. workshop, all of those speaking on equity asking the board to restore the word.
“I just feel when the word equity is a problem, we have a big problem,” Artie Gardella said.
“The word equity is aspirational, it is something to achieve,” Mike Cocchiola told the board. “It is something to go forward with the word with. So I’m asking you to include that in your strategic plan.” Another member of the public said: “Equity does not erase equality. It just acknowledges that there are fair disadvantages and obstacles that some students have to deal with. Our goal as parents, caregivers, staff and administrators is to provide opportunities for all students and to help those in need so that every student has access to the same resources and opportunities.”
Woolbright said various definitions have been put forth by different people, confusing the issue. In fact, inaccurate definitions have been put forth, and validated by an overreach of concern. “There are people in the community that have taken equity out of context and are trying to make it something it is simply not,” Conklin said. “So I would like to respect the team and the community. The community, Jill, gave their stamp of approval for what that draft was, and that included goal 2, for Equity, and that’s what came forward.”
Woolbright began to object to Conklin’s characterization, claiming “it wasn’t a small percentage” of people who’d objected to the word (in fact, it was, as even Woolbright had acknowledged when she narrowed the local genesis of the opposition to Furnari, who’d voiced his opposition at a rezoning hearing). But rather than risk seeing the workshop again devolve into another debate, Trevor Tucker, the board’s chairman, halted the back and forth.
“Instead of having this argument, can we do ‘Educational Equity’?” he asked. “All right, let’s just put that on there with the statute underneath. Everyone good with that? Let’s move on to the next one.”
And that was that.