Seeking a Path to Educational Justice in Washington State

A first-of-its-kind collaboration between the state's educators' union, higher education researchers and community organizations facilitates necessary change.

 

In 2019 the Washington Education Association (WEA) made a specific commitment to partner with researchers to address the barriers to educational justice that our state’s system of education presents for underrepresented and marginalized students. The organization also understood that to effectively fulfill this role required actions that explicitly further equity and anti-racism.

To inform this work, WEA reached out to UW College of Education faculty members with an open-ended invitation. In response, the three project leads Manka Varghese--a leading scholar on teacher identity and multi-lingual youth, Ana Elfers--a researcher on teaching quality, and Marge Plecki--an expert in policy and the economics of education, formed a larger contributing team of UW and Washington State University faculty and community-based organizations already engaged in relevant educational justice work around the state. The result is a series of 13 in-depth reports centering the voices of communities, students, teachers and administrators of color and their networks. Called A Roadmap to Reducing Barriers to Educational Justice in Washington State, the scholarship seeks to inform WEA and the larger system.

With the report recently completed, it's still early in the process. Next comes the challenging task of digesting and using the information to make change both within the WEA and beyond. "We want the authors to be working partners in presenting and explaining their work," says Djibril Diop, government relations director at the WEA. The WEA's recently created Center for Racial, Social, and Economic Justice will also support this effort, led by its newly hired director, Michael Peña. Leaving his position as a Mukilteo district math teacher, he's a longtime WEA member and a strong advocate for Washington Senate bill 5044 concerning dismantling institutional racism in the public school system, which passed into law and became effective in July of 2021. 

Acknowledging Harm

"The pandemic hurt everybody in different ways," says Sharonne Navas, co-founder and executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition and author of one of the roadmap's reports, A Community Perspective on Educational Justice in the Time of COVID. "Our parents and students were emotionally bereft about how little they heard from educators. The lack of forward thinking of our systems really hurt us at that moment. Technical colleges and community colleges have been doing online learning for quite some time, but our school systems were not able to transition as seamlessly as families anticipated." 

Navas sees the pandemic and this work with the WEA as a disruptive opportunity to think more holistically about the purpose of education. "What's at stake?" she asks. "Our future. We're having more students of color graduate without the basic ability to read, do math, attain a post-secondary education. We're seeing more students having to choose low-income jobs for survival." 

In addition to the inequities are the questions of whether the system is working for anyone. "Is the goal of education critical thinking or meeting standards?" Navas asks. "We as a society have created this villain of the educational system, handcuffing our teachers. In concert with the WEA, now is the time to reevaluate and revolutionize what education looks like, with the end goal being a populous able to critically think."

The need for people with critical thinking skills has never been more apparent than in the challenging work of acknowledging and addressing structural inequities caused by centuries of colonialism and racism. In addition, an already complex problem is made more dangerous and complicated by the spread of misinformation, hot-button responses, and a lack of nuanced dialogue across the nation's divisive two-party political system. 

Because of this challenging context, the roadmap asks the WEA to think critically, including questioning assumptions and beliefs about how the state practices and finances education. To help with this process, the report's overview summarizes the studies' common areas for change into four interactive principles. 

  • The first is recognizing and disrupting the education system's historical roots in settler colonialism and segregationist policies and practices. 

  • The second is to build an equity-based school finance system in keeping with the state's constitution to provide "ample" support for public education. 

  • The third is to let changes and reimagining be led by those furthest from justice. 

  • The fourth specifies the need for a web of support that cares for students, families, and educators furthest from justice. 

Together, all the principals support the idea of being historically honest about who we are, having integrity in how we treat each other, and the courage to stand up for the best of humanity to create a better future for all. 

Committed to Equity Since 1889

These struggles are not new. One of the roadmap's reports, Paramount Duty of the State: A Brief History of Educational Equity and Inequality in Washington State by UW's Nancy Beadie, whose research focuses on leadership and policy, offers critical context to shape today's response. Central to the report is that since its founding in 1889, the state's constitution has always been explicitly committed to educational equity with generous language about ample funding. This contrasts with other states which have no such equity language and whose language about funding emphasizes a more minimal approach. Further, the language crafted in 1889 was a specific response to the reconstruction era following the Civil War and the end of slavery, when white supremacy was reasserting itself. The report explains how subsequent policies and actions by the WEA and other organizations either undermined the constitution's intent or supported it.

Another report, Spaces of Belonging: Learning with and from Black-Led Community Organizations and Community Members of Color by UW Assistant Professor Shaneé A. Washington and her students Kaleb Germinaro, Kayla Chui, and Jessica Ramirez, highlights the harmful effects of Brown vs. Board of Education. With the subsequent integration and firing of Black teachers and administrators “schools became places of submission, assimilation, and where Black students were taught that they did not belong.” The report goes on to explore how schools might be reimagined by understanding the way community spaces are designed that foster belonging and learning.  

The report, Native Perspectives on Educational (In)equity in Washington State: Reclaiming Educational Sovereignty by UW’s Dana Arviso, Washington State University’s Anne Marie Guerrettaz, Wellpinit High School’s Laina Phillips, and Melodi Wynne with the Spokane Tribal Network, has two sections. The first describes the historical context of settler-colonialism in education and pervasive racism experienced by Native American children, families, communities and educators in Washington state. The second section seeks to find what educational equity means for Native American stakeholders in Washington.

Taken together with Beadie's analysis and with the other publications in the roadmap, a cohesive picture begins to emerge of harm to children, barriers that need to be removed and solutions from those most impacted that could materially change the future of education for the better. 

Not surprisingly, finance is central to the discussion and how to change school funding so that the state can live up to its longstanding equity promise. In the report Working Towards Educational Justice at State and District Levels: Perspectives of Educational Leaders by Elfers and Plecki, many point to the McCleary v Washington lawsuit initiated in 2007 that led to the Washington State Supreme Court declaring the state's system of funding K-12 schools unconstitutional in 2012. While this decision mandated that the state develop a strategy to fully fund education by 2018, these leaders make clear how steps to create adequate funding have still not addressed the inequities built into the system.

So, how can the WEA help? "They are in a powerful place," says Aditi Rajendran, a UW College of Education doctoral student and consultant on the project with expertise in teachers' associations and their affiliates and issues of educational justice. "They have a district purview; they are systems leaders, not isolated to a certain school. Their level of influence is much broader than the individual classroom or school."

Centering the Knowledge and Expertise of Those Most Impacted

That doesn't mean all its members agree, which Rajendran sees as the central challenge of this work. "Are you going for consensus and democratic process?" she asks. "The majority of teachers are middle class white women. What happens when you center the knowledge and expertise of leaders of color even though they aren't the majority? We need to think about that as being central to a social justice endeavor." The roadmap offers an excellent case study in why it's so critical to center the voices of those furthest from equity and justice — because they have a front-row seat to the harm enacted and the roadblocks hindering the success of Washington's longstanding mandates for equity and ample funding. 

One example is a roadmap report that amplifies the voices of mothers of children of color with disabilities. Who Gets to be a Child? by UW Assistant Professor Maggie Beneke; Shayla Collins, director of The Arc of King County; and Selma Powell, director of UW’s special education program; details the challenges mothers face advocating for their children who struggle with "surveillance, pathologization, and criminalization" at schools that "regularly define and measure competence in proximity to whiteness." 

This is why Rajendran doesn't think it's the time to center all children. "Students of color are disproportionately facing harm in schools. If we are not explicit in centering that, then it gets co-opted. That's the danger of trying to make the narrative too broad and appealing." She emphasizes that it matters who leads the process in what gets addressed and how.

The roadmap also includes a list of questions to guide the WEA and other state agencies and educational organizations on sustainable organizational practices to support a reorientation to anti-racism and educational justice. These include inquiry about the structures and processes that diminish the rights and opportunities of non-dominant students, families, and communities; how to prioritize finance equity; how to reimagine priorities, redistribute power, and lift student voices; to name a few.

So that more systems can benefit from the information, team members will present the findings in a session at the American Educational Research Association’s (AERA) 2022 conference, with the additional goal of the reports being compiled into a published book.

"So much has become politicized when it shouldn't be," says Julie Popper, the WEA's communications strategist. "We as a community need to return to our core values of quality equitable education for students, of cultural competence and supporting mental health, things everyone agrees on. It's not a distraction. It's the core work we do as a union and as educators." Not only that, but going down this road has the power to heal and create a brighter education future in keeping with the state's earliest ideals.