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“Equity” Is Only a Word: Largest Racial Achievement Gaps Are in America’s Most Progressive Cities

An eye-opening report has just been published that serves as a warning about how far removed the rhetoric of progressives can be from the reality of what the policies they support are doing—or not doing—for students. In public schools across America, black and Latino kids have trailed their white peers in reading, math and high school graduation rates for decades. But the size of those achievement gaps varies by city and it turns out that they are much larger in progressive cities than in conservative ones. 

The report, Secret Shame: How America’s Most Progressive Cities Betray their Commitment to Educational Opportunity for All, is a project by brightbeam, the newly branded organization of which Project Forever Free is a part. The authors of the report found that progressive cities, on average, have math and reading achievement gaps that are 15 and 13 points higher than conservative cities.

For those who pride themselves on their progressivism, these results will seem counterintuitive and may even feel like a punch to the gut. Others who do not subscribe to a progressive world-view will likely be unsurprised by the results. Either way, the numbers are the numbers and it’s hard to argue with brightbeam’s CEO Christ Stewart when he describes the cities many assume to be bastions of “equity” as “citadels of racial, economic and educational injustice.”

According to the report, for example, in San Francisco 70 percent of white students are proficient in math, compared to only 12% of black students reaching proficiency — a 58-point gap. In Washington, D.C., 83 percent of white students scored proficient in reading compared to 23 percent of black students — a 60-point gap

By contrast, city and school leaders have effectively closed or even erased the achievement gap in either math, reading or graduation in three of the most conservative cities the researchers looked at — Virginia Beach, Anaheim and Fort Worth. 

The researchers reached these and other similar conclusions by studying the education outcomes of America’s twelve most progressive and twelve most conservative cities as determined by criteria developed independently by two political scientists, Chris Tausanovitch and Christopher Warshaw. They controlled for other factors that could potentially explain the different educational outcomes, including per-pupil spending, poverty rates, population size and rates of private school attendance but none of these other variables made a difference. The variable that mattered most when it came to predicting the size of the achievement gap was whether a city was progressive or conservative. 

No one can deny that progressive leaders have fallen in love with the word ‘equity’ and take great pride in pronouncing their commitment to fighting for those who have been left out and left behind. Some are very quick to accuse anyone who doesn’t share their progressive ideology of not caring about people of color or of failing to be sufficiently “woke.” But in light of the report’s findings, now might be a good time for the progressive movement to pump the brakes on its education rhetoric and keyboard warriorhood and regroup on how to meaningfully commit to transformational change for the black and brown students in their cities. 

Equity is only a word no matter how many times one says it, writes it and weaponizes it against others. The brutal truth is that in many of America’s wealthiest and most progressive cities, the current system places black and brown children at a disadvantage on their first day of school.

The only way to change that is to first accept that it’s true. 

What Do You Think?
Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a former educator and elected school committee member and the chief editor of this site, Project Forever Free. She is also a senior visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She blogs at Good School Hunting and occasionally writes for other outlets including Scary Mommy, The 74, and The Hill. She is the mother of three school aged sons who currently attend a district school, a charter school, and a private school—in 3 different zip codes! Rhode Island is home.

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