Centering Equity in Education
By Khaliff Davis, Director K-12 Lending, Reinvestment Fund
Since its inception, the community development financial institution industry has been committed to providing capital to help expand opportunity for historically excluded communities. In recent years, the continued and often growing disparities in outcomes ranging from health to education to economic prosperity have led CDFIs like Reinvestment Fund to dial up its work to explicitly address racial equity in lending, investing, and operational practices.
While this work remains urgent, it is also a challenge to determine precisely how to incorporate or operationalize racial equity into our varied work. How do CDFIs incorporate an explicit racial equity agenda into their lending and programs? What should we learn from those most impacted by oppressive systems? What work do we need to do as institutions and individuals to genuinely build a racial equity perspective? And how might we collaborate beyond our industry to improve outcomes?
In 2018, Reinvestment Fund and a group of seven other CDFIs formed the CDFI Racial Equity Collaborative on Education (the Collaborative) to try to answer these questions with a focus on lending to K-12 schools.
Our focus on education is important because, in many ways, schools are often a microcosm of their communities. They manifest the challenges and strengths of their broader community. More than just institutions of education, schools play a part in the emotional and physical wellbeing of America’s future. Therefore, it is critical that we understand and nurture the policies and practices that foster equitable educational success.
As a first step, the Collaborative engaged three educational equity consultants–Village of Wisdom, we are (Working to Extend Anti-Racist Education), and Discriminology–to develop a framework for evaluating schools’ commitments to creating equitable learning environments for all students.
Referred to as the Racial Equity Matrix (REM), the consultants defined ten academic focus areas most acutely impacted by racial inequity and provided the CDFI lenders with a host of questions to assess policies and practices related to each of these areas. The ten focus areas include: parent engagement, academic pathways, mindful discipline, culturally relevant curricula, social justice curricula, student recruitment, equitable honors & AP, social-emotional support, and teacher recruitment.
As a long-time lender to schools, Reinvestment Fund has delivered flexible financing that supports the real estate development needs of schools providing quality education outcomes. Reinvestment Fund has always gone beyond the financial story that audits and projections tell, seeking to conduct a multifaceted review of a school’s program. We observe classes in session and engage in discussion with school staff to assess the experience of the leadership team, student engagement and demand, and whether the program is outperforming its peers on traditional markers of success such as standardized assessments and graduation rates. Over the last two decades, we’ve provided over $500 million in financing to more than 100 K-12 schools, and most of these schools have served students of color who often reside in communities challenged by poverty. Too often, however, students of color, particularly Black and Latinx students, continue to face inequity inside schools we may even support.
One example is the effect of negative labeling in schools. School leader Ebony Payne Brown of Peace Academy in Atlanta, a school with an Afrocentric curriculum that focuses on pushing academic development and strengthening cultural awareness, describes how negative labels often result in inequitable treatment such as harsher punishment and fewer opportunities.
“In environments that are not steeped in equity, we see a disproportionate amount of Black and brown students with negative labels placed on them throughout their educational career; often as early as Kindergarten,” says Payne Brown. “These negative labels follow them throughout the school system and are extremely critical in the success or lack thereof of their future. For example, Black boys are far more likely to be placed in special education settings, kicked out of class for minor infractions, given extreme behavioral consequences, and are often looked over for gifted and talented programs.”
Payne Brown points out that there are opportunities to incorporate more equitable education practices. She explains “When schools and educators are aware of the messages and practices they have internalized and perpetuate and make the choice to do something different, then we see education systems create a more equitable approach to education. We see more of our Black and brown students thriving. We see communities and generations changing.”
The REM approach digs deeper into whether the racial achievement gap within a school is closing, participation of students of color in gifted and advanced programming is increasing, and that suspension and expulsion rates are decreasing. The approach makes clear that reviewing quantitative data is just the beginning. While data around enrollment, academic performance, and discipline can be gathered relatively easily, the qualitative questions around culturally relevant practices, restorative approaches to justice, student and parent voice, and whether staff have a racial equity perspective are more nuanced and harder to measure.
“Implementing a more equitable approach to education goes beyond giving more money and resources,” said Brian King, Founder of Liberation Academy, a new public charter school in Southeast Atlanta that serves students in grades 5-8. “It is utilizing those resources to provide an educational experience that is designed specifically for the students and community in which it serves. Catering to the specific needs of students of color, without compromising the quality of education, creates the platform for educational equity.”
The REM has proved to be the first step of an iterative process to provide Reinvestment Fund with a framework to think, talk, and inquire about racial equity in schools. The REM has even been incorporated into our evaluation of mission fit, contributing to a fairly robust set of underwriting criteria used to determine investment decisions. We also recognize the unique value we have as a lender that speaks with many schools, consultants, and equity resources, and are excited to have the opportunity to expand our role as a capacity builder to help schools access training on the concepts of the REM through the recently launched Charter School Racial Equity Fund (CSREF).
The CSREF provides a nine-month-long, cohort-based learning opportunity to school administrators, staff, and their community, focusing on the areas identified in the REM, providing school participants with tools they can use to continue to operationalize the pursuit of racial equity even after the pilot concludes. CSREF kicks off this year in the Metro Atlanta region with an inaugural cohort of five schools, including Zest Preparatory Academy, DeKalb Brilliance Academy, Miles Ahead Charter School, Liberation Academy, and Peace Academy who all demonstrate a commitment to ensure racial equity as part of a high-quality academic program.
“Families should not have to cross their fingers for a stroke of luck or an opening at a high-quality school for their child[ren] to receive a strong education,” said Kolt Bloxson, Founder of Miles Ahead Charter School (MACS) that expects to open next fall. “These are just chances and alone will not move the needle for our most in need populations. Instead of chances, there needs to be long-term pathways for high-quality educational opportunities. MACS is here doing just that–trying to normalize high-quality educational opportunities for all children while employing a diverse, talented staff who believe this too.”
The benefits of the approach are multifold. When schools focus on equity, parent and student voices are lifted to the forefront of school policy and classroom experiences. Parents and students gain a seat at tables that are deciding how to create learning environments rooted in historically accurate assessments of race, gender, and class. These are opportunities where parents and students can be heard while school leaders and educators share their important perspectives as a diverse group of professionals working tirelessly to improve the education experience for the community they serve.
“The very foundation of MACS is built upon a diversity of voice and is strengthened by differing perspectives,” explains Bloxson. “As we continue to grow both in number and the inclusivity of perspectives, frameworks centered on race are both a mirror and magnifying glass through which our institution can assess our academic programs and designs, routines, traditions, and policies to create a truly fair experience for all children, staff and community members.”
But perhaps nothing has been more of a wake-up call to the inequities of our education system than the pandemic. Both students and teachers alike, across Georgia, have struggled to access the technology needed to connect virtually. The alternative has been to risk safety as infection rates have soared.
“We should not want to rush back to ‘normal’ or how things were pre-COVID because what used to be normal has not been good for Black and brown and poor children,” shares Davion Lewis, Executive Director of RISE Schools in Atlanta. “We should not be rushing back to or romanticizing what public education was prior to March 2020 because it has consistently failed Black, brown, and poor children and has been a system of suffering and trauma for them. Instead, we should all be using this opportunity to completely reimagine and revamp our public education system with a particular eye towards better serving, holistically, the social-emotional needs and intellectual potential and aspirations of Black, brown, and poor children.”
For Reinvestment Fund, that bold reimagining has to go beyond improving educational equity. It must address inequity with race in mind and at multiple levels: individual, institutional, and societal. At Reinvestment Fund, this work to address racial inequity in schools is already informing our lending across systems from housing to health. We hope that by applying a racial equity lens to our underwriting and expanding our work with CSREF we will be better positioned to support school leaders and learning environments where equity, social, emotional, and academic development are mutually reinforcing.
To learn more about our work with schools, visit https://www.reinvestment.com/financing/k-12-education/.