Systemic Racism: How Disparate Investments in Public Education Fuel Social Inequality

Created: 28 September, 2020
Updated: 14 August, 2022
11 min read

This is Part Two of a two-part series on racism and the education system. Read Part One here. 

Data supporting the direct link between family income and student achievement rely mostly on test scores as the primary indicator of success. By that measure, the evidence is indisputable that schools in wealthy neighborhoods out-perform schools located in less affluent communities.

In a class-based society, systemic racism in public education results in policies that serve to discriminate against the poor and underserved, primarily affecting students of color. 

Attempts have been made to rectify the disparity in achievement based on income. But none has been successful, despite best efforts by some to address social justice issues through legislative means.

“We have racial inequity and injustice in our society,” said Ibram X. Kendi, author of the best-selling book “How to be an Antiracist.”

It’s a false narrative that there’s been “steady and continuous and perfect and beautiful racial progress,” he said, at a recent talk presented by San Diego’s National Conflict Resolution Center.

“To be anti-racist is to challenge these policies … to create more equitable policies.”

At the same online program, Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility,” said the education system was a prime example of institutional racism. 

Getting involved in local schools to facilitate the changes needed to make a quality education accessible for every child can begin to transform the system, she said.

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“In a society where racism is the norm, to not actively seek to interrupt it is to collude with it,” she said. “If you are not actively challenging that status quo, you are participating in the status quo.”

Challenging the status quo is what Shana Hazan has been doing for years.

Hazan, a parent at Franklin Elementary School in the San Diego Unified School District, is also president of Franklin’s school foundation and a First 5 California Commissioner.

Her personal efforts to encourage more families to opt in to their neighborhood schools, appreciate diversity and work inside the system to make needed changes, are having an impact.

Franklin, located in the mid-city area of San Diego, is a TK (transitional kindergarten) through fifth-grade school with a maximum of about 400 students. The school, according to California Department of Education data for 2018-2019, is about 51% Latinx, 18% White, 15% Asian and 9% Black. 

More than 70% of the students are classified low-income, and 31 % are English learners.

Hazan, who is White, chose Franklin for her daughter because of the school’s diversity, its proximity and its special focus on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math).

She is a strong advocate for neighborhood public schools and is passionate about education equity. 

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“When we can get families to opt into their neighborhood schools, we have these diverse ecosystems that exist,” she said. “When folks from all incomes and all backgrounds attend the same school, my hope is that everybody succeeds.”

With integrated schools, “we are teaching our kids to accept everybody and to welcome everybody,” she said. “You learn from them, understand them, become friends with them.

“We have to interact with other people. If we continue to live in our bubbles, our insular homogenous bubbles, of course racism is going to persist."

Hazan, a former teacher in the Chicago public school system, said targeted interventions are needed to support underserved students and families.  

“In order to close opportunity gaps in communities with the greatest needs, our schools must evolve beyond their traditional focus on teaching and learning to include targeted one-on-one case management to address basic needs like food, housing and employment,” she said.

Rosa Parks Elementary School. Photo by Vito Di Stefano for IVN San Diego

Investing in Neighborhood Schools

Hazan said one of the first questions she was asked when her family moved to San Diego’s Kensington area about six years ago was where they planned to send their daughter to school. 

At the time, she said families in their neighborhood were sending their kids to 30 or 40 different schools throughout the county. 

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“I asked why, when we have this school in our neighborhood,” she said. 

She decided to investigate the quality of instruction at the school and to discount test scores, which she said “don’t have a lot to do with the quality of education that’s happening in the classroom.”

She was impressed and enrolled her daughter, now in second grade, at Franklin. 

“This is a really great school,” Hazan said. Besides the classroom instruction, there are “some really wonderful intangibles happen when you’re at a neighborhood school.”

Kids have friends from school living just blocks away, they see each other at neighborhood parks, and they are exposed to different cultures and languages that expand their world view. 

And there’s no stress driving to and from school in heavy traffic, Hazan said. 

Franklin is a magnet school, which is a school with a particular focus. In this case, the focus is STEAM. After accommodating all the neighborhood children who wish to enroll, a magnet school is open to students outside the neighborhood as space allows.

After choosing Franklin before her daughter was even in school, Hazan got involved and launched an independent school foundation to raise supplemental money for the school and its teachers. She is president of the foundation. 

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As word spread, more families in the neighborhood over the last four or five years have chosen to opt in to Franklin, she said. Now, a long waiting list exists for families outside the boundaries who want to enroll their children there. 

Another sign that parents are becoming more actively involved, she said, is that more Franklin families are donating to the foundation to support the school’s work. 

Franklin’s foundation, which Hazan said raises about $30,000 each year, has consistently funded a STEAM resource coordinator who works with teachers and students to support STEAM learning. The foundation also funds non-certificated staff members for extras like music and art, as needed.

Foundation money funds supplies, library materials, professional development for teachers, a school newspaper and “online learning success bags,” which were given to every student after this year’s online learning began. 

More Than Money Needed

“The sad reality is that in this country we have not yet figured out how to lift adults or children out of poverty,” said Leslie Fausset. “Yes, it will take money, but money alone won't do it.

“We need to continue to work to find the strategies (and) systems that will give adults and children the support they need to break the cycle,” she said.

Fausset worked in Sacramento as the state’s deputy superintendent of public instruction under Delaine Eastin on education policy, including strategies on how to close the achievement gap. Later, she served as San Diego Unified’s chief of staff and deputy superintendent.

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She is a former teacher, principal and assistant superintendent in the Poway Unified School District. Before retiring in 2012, she served as superintendent of the Solana Beach School District, and worked to address issues confronting the district's low-income, Latinx and English learner student population.

“Solid, empathic, fair-minded teachers with supportive classroom parents can unite students from diverse backgrounds."

“We can't stop, give up or ease up on finding ways to improve circumstances for so many who deserve the opportunity to access success in our society,” she said.

To Fausset’s point, many underperforming schools with a majority low-income student population receive extra money from state and federal sources to address the underlying social inequity. 

But yet, little has changed, and low-income students and other students of color continue to suffer from systemic racism and deep-rooted discrimination that permeates a White-dominant culture.

“As money pours into San Diego Unified, the district gives pay increases but there is no corresponding process to ensure students have effective teachers for all that money,” said Sally Smith, a former SDUSD parent. “The key is teachers engaging their students.” 

For the past 20 years, Smith has been working to secure equal rights for low-income students, not just in San Diego Unified but throughout the county and even statewide. Her fight for social justice and equity in educational opportunities has resulted in the suspension of many unfair policies that charge student fees for what should be free. 

Smith has served in leadership roles at the district level, including the District Advisory Council for Compensatory Education Programs which monitors federal monies for economically-disadvantaged students. 

She has worked tirelessly to stop public school districts from charging students fees for band uniforms, graduation gowns, science camps, school supplies, and all manner of extracurricular activities, including athletic programs and cheerleading. And this is hardly an exhaustive list.

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One issue she challenged a few years ago was the insurance policy that parents had to purchase if they wanted their children to have a Chromebook to take home. 

“Parents had to scrape up $15 to pay for the insurance policy, so I am sure that was a barrier to many families,” Smith said. “Now the district is tripping all over itself to get Chromebooks in the hands of each student, but its previous practice placed hurdles for students to obtain Chromebooks.” 

Parents with disposable income can afford to send their children to preschool, provide cultural advantages through travel and exposure to the arts, offer the latest computers and technology, hire tutors, and provide books and other resources that enrich a child’s life. 

“Public schools in affluent communities are actually private schools,” Smith said. “Parent foundations generate hundreds of thousands of dollars, which San Diego Unified permits parents to buy more teachers and administrators. Public schools are not at the level playing field that SDUSD would have the public believe.”

Committed and involved parents can be the key to counteract the advantages provided to children from affluent families.

“Solid, empathic, fair-minded teachers with supportive classroom parents can unite students from diverse backgrounds to develop empathy and respect for one another and learn to work and play together successfully,” said Jessica Baron, founder and executive director of Guitars in the Classroom, a nonprofit that trains educators to integrate hands-on music-making with literacy education.

“This isn't simple but it is exceptionally valuable because it lays the foundation for students to succeed in the real world.”


Hazan enthusiastically cheered Robin DiAngelo’s advice for parents to get involved in neighborhood schools. 

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“Yes, opt-in!” she said. “Ask the question: What am I really afraid of? If what you’re afraid of is rooted in racism, push yourself to go beyond that.” 

“I think for a lot of White parents, and for White people in general, we are not used to being in the minority,” she said. “That can be hard for some people.” 

Franklin, Hazan’s neighborhood school, is not a majority White school. “It’s a school that values diversity and embraces the differences among its students,” Hazan said. 

“I think recognizing our differences is really important. For our kids to see that there are people who look different from you, talk different from you, live in different types of homes … All of that is wonderful.”

She understands that not everyone feels that way. 

"For White people in general, we are not used to being in the minority"

“There is a lot of anxiety among middle- and upper-income White families about what that diversity means,” Hazan said. “There’s veiled racism, or in some cases overt racism.”

The way to fight institutional racism in education, she said, is to get involved to change the system.

Robin DiAngelo would applaud this. “That’s the kind of investment we have to be willing to make,” DiAngelo said.

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“White middle-class and upper-class parents are often the number one barrier to the kind of equality that could change schools,” DiAngelo said, urging parents to not simply move away “so your child can have something better.”

She said these parents need to ask themselves, “Why do I believe my children should have the best of everything? And does that depend on somebody else’s children not having the best of everything?”

It’s unacceptable to realize that “schools are unequal as long as my child is in the best school,” she said. 

Parents should think deeply, DiAngelo said, about “what we think we need and deserve, to what we’re willing to get involved in to open things up so that everybody has a quality education.”

“This is a deeply protected system and it doesn’t give up easily,” she said. “Particularly if you are White, you are likely going to get seduced back into the status quo.”

Racism is at the core of our society’s institutions and provides power to White people – economically, legally and politically, said DiAngelo and Ibram Kendi. 

“We need organizations that are challenging racism,” Kendi said. “We need to figure out the policies that are behind it. We need to be pushing for policy changes … And we need to be utilizing our power to force or institute policy change.”

“There’s a role for every single human, every single American, in that struggle,” he said.

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“I don’t think it’s enough to just be aware,” Kendi said. “Robin and I didn’t write our books just to make people aware. We wanted the awareness to lead to action, the awareness to lead to transformation, the awareness so people would have the courage to transform this country once and for all.”  

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