I read with interest Ms. Hershkowitz’ opinion piece on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in our schools (September 17, 2021). It reminded me of the tremendous strides the American education system and New York State has made to provide groups with outstanding services, rights and opportunities. As Ms. Hershkowitz notes, “…equity has long been a part of our education system, most notably special education.”

Here is a listing of federal laws which prohibit discrimination, access to education, and programs and services specifically designed to meet the various needs of students who are designated  by certain groups (race, color, sex, disabilities, national origin etc.) in addition to special education law.

  • Education For all Handicapped Children Act of 1975 — currently the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA)
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the federal Bilingual Education Law, Bilingual Education Act of 1968 and Equal Education Opportunities Act of 1974
  • Title IX of the Education Act of 1972

As you can see, none of the above are new laws. School districts have been implementing and adhering to these laws and New York State regulations for many years. Districts are monitored by the New York State Education Department and the federal Office of Civil Rights to ensure adherence to these laws and accompanying regulations.

Schools provide not only special education services, via a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), — which might include special classes or inclusion in general education classes, occupational, physical, counseling and speech therapies, 1:1 aides, transportation — they are also required to provide translation of materials (evaluations and IEPs) and a translator at meetings for parents, if requested. These services are also provided for preschool students with a disability. Schools also provide services via:

  • Sec.504 accommodation plan
  • For English as a New Language (ENL) students, districts are required to provide bilingual or ENL classes
  • For students who are home insecure (homeless) they are protected by the McKinney-Vento Act, which allows for students who may not have a residence in the district to attend school there with transportion provided, as needed.
  • For students who may be struggling academically, Academic Intervention Services (AIS) are mandated, in addition to the regular education classes provided throughout the school day.
  • Based on a student’s economic status, they may also receive free or reduced priced, lunch, breakfast and, in some cases, snacks.
  • Schools are prohibited to ask the citizenship status of students or parents. One need not be a citizen to attend a public school.

This is not an exhaustive listing of current services and programs in our schools, which assist our students in fully participating in all the school community has to offer,  but you get the idea. 

The description Ms. Hershkowitz gives of her classes, welcoming of all students and the broadening of her repertoire to engage students, although to be applauded, is what I would expect of any caring and professional teacher, not necessarily due to DEI.

Mr. Gene Durney posted a comment on Ms. Hershkowitz’ piece, stating “a lot of rainbow and lollipop descriptions that masks a much darker reality of what is actually being suggested” raised a red flag for me.

So what is the genesis of the currrent DEI? We already have the aforementioned law and regulation, which has been tweaked, as issues warranted.  And why at this time?  Does the  New York State Board of Regents have an agenda? I urge the reader to seek out the  below-referenced documents, from which I quote excerpts throughout. They are easily found online and are worth reading. 

The Board of Regents launched an initiative in April to “…advance Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in New York Schools.” This document states, “The Board’s initiative comes during a pivotal moment in the nation’s history, when the country appears ready to address its long history of racism and bigotry and the corrosive impact they have had.” It continues: “After a year of turmoil and heartbreak, it is natural to wish for a ‘return to normal,’ but for far too many New Yorkers, the old normal is a place where people are traumatized daily by events, circumstances and the chronic lack of opportunities,” said Regents chancellor is Lester W. Young Jr. “…we cannot allow this opportunity for change to pass us by. We must seize this moment to redefine what is normal and possibible for our students.” 

The Regents also released a draft “Framework on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in New York Schools: A Call to Action,” in April. In this document, it is stated that “A confluence of events has brought us to this point of reckoning, including:

  • “The senseless, brutal killing of Black and Brown men and women at the hands of law enforcement…”
  • “A dangerous spike in violence aimed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders fueled in part by lies that attempt to link the Asian community with the creation and spread of the Coronavirus.”
  • “A renewed wave of discrimination and hateful rhetoric directed at those thought to be different or somehow “not quite” American…Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, LGBTQ individuals, individuals with disabilities, immigrants and refugees, especially those arriving at our southern boarder”.
  • “The terrible toll that COVID-19 has had on all of our lives…the disproportianate impact of this pandemic has surfaced and further exacerbated long-standing educational inequities, predominantly impacting Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous and poor student populations and students with disabilities.”

“These national tragedies have combined to create a perfect storm — a storm that is powerful enough to propel us beyond the systemic racism that has come to define American institutions,” the document states.

 It continues to discuss “The Danger of a Single Story” in which Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, explains that “the single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” 

Local boards of education are to develop a policy on DEI, and generate a “Culturally Responsive and Sustaining (CR-S) Framework”.

In a May 2021 Board release, Chancellor Young stated, ” One of my first priorities as chancellor has been to transform the board’s work to view everything through an equity and inclusion lens and make the necessary changes to lift up all students.” 

The draft Framework of April 2021 provides definitions of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, but which are qualified by the statement: “The act of defining is often the direct attempt to make something definite, distinct or clear. Our purpose is not to restrict, but to provide clarity to the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion.” 

So the Board of Regents is looking through an equity and inclusion lens for all of their work, which they cannot define?

It seems that our “single story” will portend amending or rewriting our story. Perhaps a rewritten history? Who will be writing this? 

For students who are struggling or failing academically,  will the concepts of DEI increase their academic success? How will the DEI impact test scores and graduation rates? 

How does one measure “equity?” What is the bar? What will the board be redefining?

In the Framework I notice there is a negligible mention of whites.

In the Framework I notice there is negligible mention of preparing students to be productive American citizens and welcoming new students to our American culture, but defining students according to distinct groups — race, marginalized, ethnicity, LBGTQ etc. — rather than the inclusion being espoused.  

Recently, parents have voiced concerns about “critical race theory.” It seems to me that CRT has morphed into Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Lots of word salad which avoids speaking of Americanism, academics, meritocracy and hard work, but speaks of excuses, blame, shaming, bigotry and racism for student failure. It fits the current political narrative.

Is the push for DEI a not-so-veiled attempt to excuse failing schools and failing students?  Something to read and think about.

Catherine Wheeler is a retired educator who held various positions in the New York State Department of Education and the New York City Department of Education over a 40-year career. She lives in Calverton.

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