Other Ways Racism Is Embedded in the Education System


Hi friends,

We didn’t mean to take an accidental sabbatical but life happens sometimes. We can start with some fun personal updates: Ellie’s back in the classroom doing hybrid teaching and skiing the final snow-covered weekends of the year in Colorado, Hayden’s finishing her junior year at Cornell, and Emily’s wrapping up law school and writing papers tangentially related to antiracism (she maintains that everything is related to antiracism, especially drug policy and police law and restorative justice practices). We’re all at least halfway vaccinated (cue a single, thankful tear rolling down each of our cheeks). We’re all getting outside as much as possible (the blooms! The sunshine!). We’re all eating well and sleeping okay and trying to keep up with the rapid changes that feel like they’re barreling toward us (we’re all moving into a new place at some point over the summer and we’re all either starting a new job or, in the case of Ellie, a new *literal journey* this summer as she treks the Colorado mountains all summer long).

We also have an exciting update for Unlearning Racism…we’re expanding! Remember that BIPOC advisory board we mentioned a few weeks back? We’re *finally* going to be onboarding in the coming weeks (cue grateful tears, again). We’re filling out paperwork to apply to be a 501(c)3, we’re writing official mission and vision statements, and we’re making this newsletter and dialogue series a little more permanent. We’re still not going to be making this our full time gig, but we did want to explain that a lot is happening behind the scenes, even in the weeks we’re less diligent about getting newsletters out to all of you! 

That being said, we hate that we missed the end of March and our notes about the education system, so we’re just going to cover it all (briefly) today. Without further adieu: a noncomprehensive glimpse at other issues related to the education system affecting racism.


“School choice,” or the provision of vouchers or other public money so that students can attend private or charter schools, is rooted in white supremacy. Before we get an angry response email, let us say that we understand that for some families, attending a charter is the best possible option and that both Ellie and Emily have worked for charter schools (Ellie still does, and often grapples with the pros and cons of charter networks) and all three of us attended a private school growing up. We get it: a lot of times charters and private schools provide a quality educational experience that is otherwise not available.

That being said, there’s no way to divorce the history of the “school choice” movement from Civil Rights Movement-era segregation, often accompanied by state law movements to give vouchers granting public money to private, often Christian schools, as a means of keeping white kids away from their Black counterparts post-Brown v. Board of Education

Charters are different from public schools in a few key ways: charters aren’t bound to geographic zones in the same way public schools are; charters can still receive public funding from the counties in which they have students, but are often funded by grants or corporate entities as well (the charter school Emily worked for was double dipping – receiving funds from 2 counties from which it was bussing low-income students AND had a massive foundation at the core of the charter network); charter schools aren’t subject to the same restrictions or oversight of their public counterparts, despite being better funded; charters can have strict requirements for enrollment, whereas public schools generally have to take all students in the district they serve.

While many charter schools do provide educational experiences not offered by comparative public schools, they are a bandaid on a dam leak. The education system is already so drained of resources in many areas and charters, often able to reach into those strapped public education funds in addition to their corporate donations, have lended to a parallel education system with less oversight and more opportunity for exclusion. 

You can read an overview of the historical ebbs and flows of the School Choice movement here

You can read a report about the ways that charter schools contribute to isolation of racial groups and thus contribute to segregation here


Black students and other students of color face harsh discipline at a far higher rate than their white counterparts for the same behaviors (you can read a Princeton and Yale study on this here). 

Black students are almost four times as likely to be suspended from school as white students, almost three times as likely to be removed from the classroom but kept within school, and almost three times as likely to be expelled. Black students are also almost three times as likely to be referred to police for an incident on the school grounds, and three-and-a-half times as likely to be arrested for an incident either on school grounds or during school activities.

Children who experience punitive disciplinary actions in school exhibit lower academic achievement across the board. Because exclusionary disciplinary policies reduce children’s in-classroom time and reduce time that children spend engaged in educationally meaningful activities, this chips away at their opportunity to learn and can have long term negative impacts on children’s academic attainment. Thus, racial disparities in adverse disciplinary outcomes exacerbate existing race-based “achievement gaps.”

Beyond concerns about stunting educational potential, however, the real concern lies in the ways that these disparate policies affect and contribute to greater racial trauma. 

You can read a Brookings report on the racial disproportionality of school discipline here. For more readings about classroom discipline and racism, we recommend Pushoutboth the book and the documentary, about the criminalization of Black girls in schools.


Decades of research have documented that students of color, particularly black children, are disproportionately classified by schools as having disabilities. In 2016, 12 percent of Black children across the nation received services at school for disabilities ranging from emotional disturbances to physical disabilities to intellectual impairment. Only 8.5 percent of white children received those services.

The disability rate for Latino students — 9.4 percent nationally — is only slightly higher than for whites and the disparity hasn’t been as contentious as the disproportionality for Black students. Various studies have shown that disability status had become a tool to perpetuate racial segregation, especially in the South.

However, when it comes to receiving services to accommodate one’s disability, researchers have found that Black students, even in the South, were under-identified for special education services. One Penn State report calculated that Black students were at a 45 percent lower odds of receiving special education services than white students who had similar family income, academic achievement and school characteristics. Even among students attending the same school, researchers found that, on average, a Black student was less likely than a similar white child to be identified as having a disability rather than treated for a disciplinary issue.

You can read a more thorough explanation of this phenomenon here or about the hidden racial gaps in special education here


Student loan debt weighs heaviest on Black and Latino students, in no small part because white students are more likely to be insulated, or at least partially insulated, by generational wealth (remember how only white people were allowed to own property for generations? Remember how after that only white people were allowed to sign mortgages in many neighborhoods? Then remember how de facto segregation kept nonwhite borrowers from the market or charged them at higher interest rates to this day? Couple these things with the generations who were disallowed from attending college and the overcriminalization of Black and Hispanic communities that keeps incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people from most wealth-building experiences and, well, this makes a lot of sense). So, Black students are more likely to have to take out loans in the first place, without the possibility of families supplementing education costs.

According to multiple studies, including one from National Center for Education Statistics, Black students are not only more likely to need to take on debt for school, but Black graduates are also nearly five times as likely to default on their loans than their white peers. In fact, on average Black students with bachelor’s degrees owe $7,400 more student debt upon graduation than white grads, according to Brookings. And this gap widens over time: after four years, Black grads hold almost twice as much in student debt as their white counterparts at $53,000.

You can read more about the interplay between student debt and the racial wealth gap here
Again, we apologize for our two week hiatus – sometimes life just gets ahead of you! We’ll be back in your inboxes on Friday with an overview of the school to prison pipeline and then get into policing and racism next week. 

In solidarity,
Ellie, Emily, and Hayden

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