State leaders reject equity; we must not
Meryl Johnson represents District 11 on Ohio’s State Board of Education. Her district covers 24 school districts, including ours, in Cuyahoga and Lake counties. Johnson, a retired 40-year public school teacher, is a visible and determined advocate for children, equity, public education and the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District (CH-UH).
“I ran for the state board to make a difference. I wanted to make it more possible for children of color to have the same opportunities as white children,” said Johnson. She is in the first year of her second term on the board, which has 11 elected and eight appointed members.
The state board oversees the implementation of education policy in Ohio. During Johnson’s tenure, members adopted a five-year strategic plan to lift aspirations and to promote high-quality education practices throughout the state. The plan made equity a core principle and presented educating the whole child as a central measure of quality. It provides a clear roadmap for making our schools work for more of our students.
Equity goes beyond saying everyone is equal. It pushes against barriers outside an individual’s control that privilege some people and discriminate against others, leading to unequal opportunities.
Last year, George Floyd’s death triggered a reawakening about the powerful cost of racism paid by African Americans. Under the Black Lives Matter banner, individuals, organizations, businesses and policymakers launched efforts to examine their own participation in racism, and to unlock the doors that would fully value Black people.
This awakening reached the state board. Then-president Laura Kohler worked with Johnson and two other board members to craft a statement joining the board with other efforts to rein in hatred and promote the equal value of every student.
On July 15, 2020, the board approved Resolution 20, titled “Resolution to Condemn Racism and to Advance Equity and Opportunity for Black Students, Indigenous Students and Students of Color.” The resolution acknowledged that public education “has not been immune to racism and inequality,” and that “we have a great deal of work left to do.” It condemned, “in the strongest possible terms, white supremacy culture, hate speech, hate crimes and violence in the service of hatred.”
“The resolution was a way for us to exercise some leadership and to remind local districts what they should be doing,” said Johnson, who sent the statement to all the school districts she represents.
CH-UH Superintendent Elizabeth Kirby welcomed the resolution. It inspired our district to issue a similar resolution, and it re-energized the district’s long-standing work to root out racism and remove barriers that prevent students from fully benefiting from the education we offer. Equity is the centerpiece of CH-UH district improvement initiatives.
The resolution condemned behavior that is inconsistent with a civil society and our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Sadly, racial division and hostility have been mobilized by some to gain and hold power, making it a courageous move to reject these otherwise odious behaviors.
On Oct. 13, in a politicized move, the state board’s new majority overruled leaders for social justice. With a 10-7 vote, the board repealed Resolution 20, rejecting equity as a goal of education in our state. It’s hard not to interpret this step backwards as an endorsement of, or at least indifference to, racism, white supremacy and hate.
Kirby is determined to pursue what is good for students even if state leaders have lost their nerve, and we can count on Johnson to stay in the fight. She is not deterred by the reality that racism has a way of interfering with progress toward anti-racism.
Susie Kaeser has been a proud Cleveland Heights resident siince 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters.