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A missed opportunity to battle racial injustice in schools

State legislators threw students under the school bus this year. Two bills left behind while the legislative session came to a close would have helped transform racial justice in education from a lofty goal to something closer to reality.

The first, known as the Judge Judith S. Kaye Solutions Not Suspensions Act, is an attempt to reform the worst excesses of New York’s school suspension system. Named for a former chief justice of the New York Court of Appeals who spent the final years of her life working to end the school-to-prison pipeline, the bill would bring New York in line with reforms made in other big states, including California.

Last year, New York students lost 900,000 days of class time to suspensions, the majority for nonviolent misbehavior. The overuse of suspensions in New York schools is a civil rights crisis. Black students and those with disabilities are especially targeted, while students from low-income communities and LGBTQ+ students are also disproportionately kicked out of class. In Buffalo, our second-largest school district, Black students are 2.5 times more likely to be suspended than white students.

Suspensions can have life-altering consequences. Children who go to schools with high suspension rates are much more likely to be arrested and incarcerated as adults. This is most true for Black and Latinx boys.

Yet the bill has stalled in Albany for eight years. During the time lawmakers have refused to take it up, tens of thousands of New York kids have been suspended, beginning in pre-K, some for as long as an entire school year.

A second bill that failed to pass this year would have required schools to teach curriculum that is inclusive of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander history. This bill was introduced in response to the horrific increase in anti-Asian hate and bias since 2020.

Inclusive curriculum and culturally responsive teaching builds self-esteem, resilience and academic engagement among students who finally get to see themselves in lessons. And it reduces bullying and harassment fueled by ignorance, helping young people grow into adults who embrace diversity.

Unfortunately, both bills were amended at the last second to introduce exceptions and to replace mandates with voluntary options. To make them more palatable to school districts, both were amended to allow for more discretion by educators. But when it comes to practicing anti-racism, discretion is the enemy of success.

Right now, across the state, predominately white school staff and faculty decide who gets to learn and who gets suspended. In the arena of school discipline, discretionary suspensions are more likely to impact Black and Latinx students than white ones. When given a choice, teachers punish Black kids more often and more harshly.

Likewise, when it comes to teaching inclusive curriculum, schools don’t lack options. The American Library Association, for example, publishes exhaustive lists of classroom-appropriate materials by diverse writers. The Board of Regents adopted a Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework five years ago to “help education stakeholders create student-centered learning environments that affirm cultural identities.” But as noted in the legislation itself, “curriculum … is often devoid of content related to the impact of Asian Americans.”

Too many students in our school system have their educational prospects diminished by racism. That’s why these bills were introduced in the first place. The NYCLU and our partners will return to Albany next year to fight for legislation that mandates the change kids deserve. It’s time our lawmakers do too.

Originally published in the Albany Times Union

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