Systemic racism has led to education disparities
College of Education dean discusses how racial discrimination results in unequal educational opportunities.
Dean Gregory Anderson took the helm of Temple’s College of Education in the summer of 2013, after serving at both Columbia University and the University of Denver. As the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd have cast a spotlight on issues of racial inequality and social justice, we sat down with Anderson to learn more about how race and economic standing impact access to educational opportunities in the U.S and how colleges and universities can help.
Temple Now: First, what brought you to the field of education?
Gregory Anderson: I was drawn to the field of education in part because of my family history. My parents are from South Africa and lived under racial discrimination in relation to the system of apartheid that was put forth by the Nationalist Party. Under apartheid, there were certain occupations that folks who were classified as nonwhite were able to pursue and teaching was one of those professions.
As a consequence of racial discrimination and employment discrimination, I have many family members—aunts, uncles, grandparents—that were teachers or principals in schools. Ironically, education is in my blood, if you will.
TN: How does your work pertain to this moment in the U.S.?
GA: I'm a sociologist by training. My doctoral thesis was on access policies at a particular university in South Africa that was trying to oppose the apartheid government and diversify their student body.
Ever since that project, my research and scholarship have focused on racial discrimination from historical, cultural, educational and economic perspectives, both here in the U.S. and abroad.
My work very much speaks to this moment in America where folks around the country and the world are protesting for racial equity and justice.
TN: How do educational experiences in our country differ based on race and economic standing?
GA: In the U.S., right from the start, Black people and people of color have always had limited access to education. But in order to really understand it, you have to look at it in the context of history.
From the country’s inception, there's been a devaluing and dehumanization of Indigenous peoples and enslaved Blacks that was rooted in a set of religious, legal, economic and educational barriers that systematically excluded them from democratic participation in American society and served as a foundation for racial inequality.
Right from the get-go, this country created an unequal educational system, but the relationship between education, race and socioeconomic status becomes even more complex if you look at post-slavery America. The unequal system is based on a confluence of factors, including Jim Crow legislation in the South, the rise of residential segregation in northern states, and the limited role of the federal government in funding and overseeing public education.
Let’s look at racially segregated neighborhoods located primarily in large urban cities. Those school districts are often classified by their state governments as dependent districts. That means their funding comes from what are called discretionary line items from the budgets of mayors or governors.
As a result, funding for public K-12 schools is in direct competition with other discretionary spending, such as support for public higher education, Medicaid, Medicare and, and most importantly—in my view—correctional services.
Government spending on correctional services has dramatically increased over several decades, and this development directly affects the underfunding of public education—both K-12 and higher education.
In places in which the school districts are not classified as dependent and therefore not reliant on discretionary spending, the funding that supports schooling comes from taxation of the property values of homes.
There again lies the problem in relation to race and socioeconomic status because racialized communities tend to be segregated, and segregated communities tend to be poorer, and they tend to have lower rates of homeownership along with lower home values on average.
You have this situation in which lack of homeownership and the lower property values contribute to poorer or underfunded schools. Then this is exacerbated by the fact that we have a pretty shameful history of redlining that kept affordable mortgages and home improvement loans out of primarily Black neighborhoods.
And the thing is that this is all interconnected, which makes reforms difficult because they have to be pretty wide-reaching in order to address all of these issues.
TN: Which is the next question: What reforms are needed to address these educational disparities?
GA: Well, there are really straightforward ways to address and correct educational disparities. The problem is they're politically difficult to implement.
One easy way would be to provide more funding for urban school districts by increasing the property taxes across the board for all city homeowners. That would mean that folks who are buying up cheaper houses in the cities in order to build them up and create value would also have to pay increased taxes to do so. Those taxes, based on their rising property values, would be invested into schools.
But so far, voters in Philadelphia and elsewhere have not been too keen on increasing their property taxes in order to support less-resourced schools in poor neighborhoods.
And then there’s a strategy where the funding formula would be altered to redistribute resources in a way that would improve the quality of public schooling in areas that predominantly serve Black students and other students from communities of color. But it’s hard to convince a statewide electorate to support, for example, a major increase in funding for Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, because the belief is that then districts in rural areas or exurbs would lose money.
This is kind of that tale of America, where we're all in favor of equality unless we have to give something up in order to see it come to fruition.
Finally, we can address the fact that in many states, prisons are receiving funding at the expense of supporting under-resourced school districts that are primarily responsible for educating Black students and other children of color. What we’ve witnessed is the rise of what's called the prison-industrial complex, as correctional services continue to receive significant state funding, which is in direct competition with calls to increase support for public education.
Undergirding what's happening now with the Black Lives Matter movement is this focus on policing, racial profiling, as well as unfair and discriminatory criminal sentencing. That is very much connected to support for public education, not only K-12 but also higher education. Obviously that needs to be addressed because there are studies that have shown that it's cheaper to actually send a student to Harvard than it is to incarcerate them.
TN: What role can universities and colleges of education play in fighting education disparities?
GA: There is an opportunity for colleges and universities at this particular moment in time to continue to provide critical support for communities. Our primary strategy in the College of Education revolves around a set of place-based initiatives that align efforts to partner and facilitate new funding opportunities with schools, districts, community and non-profit organizations, while simultaneously furnishing our students with real-life learning placements.
Right now at Temple University, we’re partnering with the School District of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and with other institutions of higher education in the city to bring Black students and other students of color into the field of education.
For a young person of color, having a teacher that looks like they do and who can be a role model is so important. Research shows that a quality teacher can make a huge difference in students’ lives and that impact multiplies exponentially. I think in the long run that's going to have such a great generational effect.
The other impact we can have is being a facilitator of resources. As a College of Education, we have the opportunity to bring in grants that we then can share with community organizations that may be underfunded. For example, we’re partnering with Jumpstart to improve early childhood literacy. And we have a Center for Career and Technical Education that is preparing the next generation of career and technical educators, but also is trying to find ways to promote workforce development, particularly in North Philadelphia.
We also partner with the Philadelphia Housing Authority to create afterschool programs and an area nonprofit to provide science and math curriculum support so middle school students will be prepared to pursue STEM fields if they choose to do so.
Our Temple students serve as a critical part of these partnerships by volunteering or interning with these partner organizations—and that's a win-win. The organizations benefit by having student volunteers performing the needed tasks and the Temple students learn to become better professionals and gain an awareness of the needs of those communities, even if it’s not where they come from.