As Right-wing Attacks on Education Escalate, Many KC Schools Ditch Equity Commitments

Image from National Education Association

In August 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, several Kansas City Metro school districts released statements of support for BIPOC students and expressed an interest in working toward equity in their schools. In response, a consortium of Kansas City racial justice advocates introduced a list of 12 Equity Demands. They requested that districts commit to these demands, work with experts on meaningful change, and submit regular data on their progress.

This racial equity consortium comprises groups led by educators, including SURJ Ed Core, Revolución Educativa, Brothers Liberating Our Community (BLOC), JUST Systems, Racial Ed EdConnect, and Elements of Education Kansas City (EOEKC). 

“When local school districts responded to racial injustice in the summer of 2020, we took note, as did many others in the community. We saw the opportunity to leverage these statements into concrete action and organize community members around common goals,” said Quinn White, a SURJ Core Member. “Some districts have latched onto the demands as a framework and utilized our experts and resources to make strides toward equity in their schools.”

Last summer, the consortium along with Black Archives of Mid-America In Kansas City’s leadership and school staff and supporters from around the metro took to the streets to show that the community is behind racial equity and teaching truth.

But two years out from the racial uprisings and the 12 demands, there are only 5 school districts or charter schools actively working with the consortium:  Kansas City Public Schools, Brookside Charter School, Kansas City, KS Public Schools, Park Hill, and Academy For Integrated Arts. 

Other school officials made initial contact, but have recently stopped responding to requests for data, including: Lee’s Summit R7, Hickman Mills, Liberty, North Kansas City, and Shawnee Mission. A group of other districts have opted not to participate at all. Those districts include:  Independence, Lansing, Raytown, Olathe, Blue Valley, and Spring Hill.

Cornell Ellis, founder of BLOC, sees it this way; “As communities who fight for justice, we no longer are satisfied with the moral victories or the half hearted performative measures that placate the masses. We see social justice rise and fall with no real systemic or measurable changes.”

Cornell Ellis, Executive Director of BLOC
Cornell Ellis, Executive Director of Brothers Liberation Our Communities (BLOC)

A large part of what the anti-racist group has been fighting is just that, districts with no vision or appetite for systemic change.

Park Hill, Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley, and Olathe have all had overt racist acts committed by white teachers and students and all chose not to dial up their commitment to the demands.  While each district again made statements, they took no meaningful systemic action in response.  Park Hill chose to allow a white teacher, who repeatedly used the N-word, to retire, rather than take action to fire him.  This despite protests led by Black students among other public actions.  

Still, the racial equity consortium has kept working to elevate and support stakeholders who have close connections to their districts.  

During the ‘21-’22 school year, the consortium joined Park Hill educators and their union in supporting Shereka Barnes, a progressive Black woman who attended Park Hill as a student, in her bid to win a school board seat.  She was successful in her campaign and is already moving equity forward.  

Shereka Barnes (Left) and Brandy Woodley (Right), Park Hill’s first ever Black members elected to school board

According to Ellis, “These last two years have been an active effort to organize hyper-local groups to hold their school districts accountable to the racial justice work that is necessary for the health and well-being of BIPOC students and families. We hope to see school leaders, parents and teachers using the demands as a way to guide and evaluate action toward achieving equity in their schools.”

Still, one common way that district leaders push back against this advocacy has been ostensibly about language.  They’ll often ask, why use the word “demands”?  “They say, that feels too confrontational to us”, says Michael Rebne, a teacher and organizer with SURJ-KC.     

The deep irony of course is that the white supremacist Right has been organizing around an anti-CRT, anti-LGBTQ agenda that is explicit in its organizing.  These rightwing groups have published so-called HeatMaps that target what they call a “crazy leftwing agenda” and come on the heels of the school shooting in Uvalde, TX

As frightening as it is, the consortium believes that this organizing needs to be confronted directly with anti-racist educational policy, including progress on the 12 demands, and that the policy list needs to be framed exactly that way, as demands.  

A leader with SURJ Ed-Core, Crystal Yakel-Kuntz understands it this way: 

“Demand is a word that creates the urgency and intentionality we deserve after centuries of being discarded and marginalized. We demand because we have spent centuries asking, suggesting, and waiting. We demand because we know that power does not cede itself.” 

But in response, district leaders have become seemingly more timid about combating these threats to educators and students.  The consortium has seen less reported progress on the demands, even as these white supremacist voices have become louder and more intense.

Rather than back down, SURJ-Ed Core recently participated in a #TeachTruth Day of Action sponsored by Zinn Education, Black Lives Matter at School, and the African American Policy Forum, among other organizations.  The SURJ Ed-Core believes it is essential to stand up for anti-racist truth and recommit to not lying to students in the face of pressure to whitewash curriculum and further marginalize the most vulnerable educators and students.  

“Asking is not enough; no realized creation of racial equity has ever happened without the demanding work of Black and Brown folks,” says Crystal Yakel-Kuntz of the SURJ Ed Core. 

“White folks must make these demands in solidarity with folks of color. It is very easy for white folks to step back when the tide of racial injustice seems low and calm because time has grown since whatever the latest racial reckoning happens to be, but folks of color never see that tide wane. We must always be actively demanding racial equity in mutual liberation with folks of color. All our lives depend on it.” – Crystal Yakel-Kuntz of the SURJ Ed Core.

Expect the consortium to continue working, organizing, and building community around these demands in order to push districts to take real action.  In addition to Barnes’ victory, there have been additional bright spots in supporting local communities to take action.  The Shawnee Mission Equity Coalition is pushing for accountability in the district’s SRO (school cop) program.

“I am encouraged by our current thought partners and local leaders who have taken on the challenge of defining what that looks like for our region.  School leaders can align themselves to the work of these experts as well as tailor the demands to the needs of their exact stakeholders, says Emily Twyman-Brown, School Leader and SURJ Ed-Core member. 

“The monthly meetings and yearly sharing of public data creates a cadence of accountability that can lead to actual attainment of said goals rather than wishful thinking or hollow public statements.” 

To get involved with the consortium, email [email protected] or follow the links to the organizations above.

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