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Reparations: Can Greater Educational Investment Close California's Racial Achievement Gap?

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A young Black child wearing a red shirt, sitting at a green desk taking a test with a pencil in hand
California's reparations task force is proposing the state increase its investment in underperforming schools as a key way to narrow the achievement gap between Black students and many of their peers. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./CalMatters)

The statewide task force studying reparations for Black Californians will submit its historic report to the Legislature on June 29. This conversation was produced as part of KQED’s Juneteenth reparations radio special on June 17. For more on reparations and the task force, visit kqed.org/reparations.

Margaret Fortune is the president and CEO of Fortune School, a network of public charter schools in California, and served as an education adviser to two California governors. Her work aims to close the racial achievement gap in education.

As part of our Juneteenth reparations radio takeover, KQED’s Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman sat down with Fortune to discuss how California’s reparations proposals could help underserved Black students.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: At a March meeting of the reparations task force, you provided expert testimony on racial disparities in education. What’s the state of the African American achievement gap in California schools now?

Margaret Fortune: Seventy percent of African American students in the state of California’s public schools do not read or write at grade level, and 84% are not achieving at grade level in mathematics. What we’re talking about is persistent, low African American student achievement in a way that is really shocking but has been normalized in California. And it’s something that we should change and invest in. And because there has been a reluctance to address the needs of African American students specifically, you get these kind of vague, amorphous approaches that haven’t demonstrated that they move the needle in a positive direction for Black students in particular.

What are your thoughts on the recommendations contained in the task force’s latest report, and how might they help address the achievement gap?

One of the recommendations that the report has made is a way to provide additional funding through the local-control funding formula. That’s how California funds schools and every school gets a base amount, and then you get more grants if you’re serving high-needs students. The legislation that we proposed, and that the reparations task force acknowledged and calls out as a potential remedy, would have included the lowest-performing subgroup in the state, driving additional dollars to the schools that serve them.

I think it’s high time that we focus in particular on the lowest-performing group. It’s not because of their race, it’s because of their academic performance. It’s about driving funding to the students that need the most help. There are 80,000 Black kids sitting outside the funding formula that belong to the lowest-performing subgroup in the state. What the reparations task force is suggesting is that we should invest in this group, and there is a race-neutral way to do it. I like that the reparations task force is not falling into this trap of people using income as a proxy for race.

What challenges do you think the final report’s proposals might face in the state Legislature?

I think the Legislature is actually quite open to the idea that African American students deserve support. I think the attorney general’s office has that point of view because it’s the one issuing this report. Where these proposals that benefit Black students run into trouble is in the governor’s office. The governor’s office has a preoccupation with the idea that anything that benefits Black people in particular is unconstitutional. I think that it’s not the Legislature where these proposals will run into troubles, it’s the governor’s office.

Oakland and Berkeley have initiated their own reparations efforts at the school-district level. I’m wondering what you make of these. Is racial inequality something that school districts can effectively take on or is this something that should be addressed at a state level?

I had the opportunity to be on a panel at the National Action Network Sacramento conference with a trustee from Berkeley who is leading their effort on reparations. Starting in 2013, Berkeley added Black kids to their local control and accountability funding formula at the request of parents. So now they’re having a conversation, which I think is one to watch, about reparations. While it’s early in that conversation, I do think that eyes are on Berkeley nationally as they grapple with this idea of how should African Americans be restored after a history that has resulted in low academic achievement in schools. The bottom line is that we have a terrible problem when it comes to African American achievement that has gotten worse because of the pandemic. That needs to be addressed.

You’ve been to these reparations task force meetings and a big part of this is outlining the harms that have been done at a state level. In your experience as an educator and as a founder of public charter schools, how have state harms affected education outcomes?

I think the greatest harm has been ignoring African American students. It’s been to talk about them in the rhetoric, but never address them in the policy. We have found a willingness to be very specific in addressing the needs of other high-needs students in a way that the state will not do for Black students. And now Black students can be distinguished not by their race, but by their academic performance and low academic performance. So that’s the harm that needs to be repaired through investment and through accountability.

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