Righting the Wrongs of Inequality through Educational Opportunity

I am a white woman and my fiancé, Brent, is a black man who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, at the height of the crack epidemic.

Unlike me, Brent was excited about his thirtieth birthday – a day several of his childhood friends didn’t have the chance to celebrate because they were in prison or dead. Brent’s mom may have saved him from meeting a similar fate when she sent to live with his aunt to attend school in the affluent suburb of Summit.

Brent and his friends were just as smart and talented as their suburban counterparts, but their schools were underresourced—as a result of a racially unequal society— and couldn’t support student development the way that staff and families knew their children deserved. That’s why Brent’s mom made the difficult decision she did.

And, that’s why Secretary Duncan’s recent speech on Investing in Teachers Over Prisons at the National Press Club resonated with me, both personally and as a social justice advocate.

I became a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the Department of Education to learn about education policy and champion my core educational beliefs—cultural competency training for teachers and human rights-based learning for students—toward the goal of creating a more just society in which future generations won’t experience the injustice that Brent and his peers did. I hope the Secretary’s speech proves to spur a nation defined by unequal access to resources and opportunities to feel “uncomfortable with this truth” and take action to change it.

The Secretary understands what happened to change the course of Brent’s life. He believes in the power of excellent educators to support students’ personal and academic growth. He also recognizes the pernicious effects of systemic racial inequity.

Black men are incarcerated at a rate six times higher than that of their white counterparts. Traditionally underserved students of color attend and complete college at lower rates than their peers. America imprisons black people at a higher rate than in Apartheid South Africa.

These facts aren’t coincidence – they’re the result of a system defined by racism and inequality on an individual, cultural and institutional level.

In his remarks, Secretary Duncan urged America to challenge the status quo. He urged us to examine unconscious biases by taking an “unsparing look at our own attitudes and decisions, and the ways they are tied to race and class”. And, he urged that we do “something transformational and revolutionary” to fix our broken system: shift funding out of prisons and into our highest-need schools. By doing this—along with the other key components of the Secretary’s plan— we can disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and improve outcomes for all students.

The Secretary said that despite the progress we’ve made, “we have to do more” to provide all students with equity of opportunity. We have to do more to send more students to flourish in college and fewer to languish in prison. We cannot continue to squander the potential contribution of countless students who are left “on the sidelines,” like Brent almost was. This shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, but it is.

And, the time is now to put this revolutionary thinking into action. We can’t wait any longer to do right by all of America’s children and to fulfill the promise of our nation.

Meredith Morelle is a 2015 Teacher Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.


  1. I unfortunately do think there is a level of discrimination due to a lack of appropriate resources in specific areas , I do strongly suggest we embrace all our youth not based on the race, sex and socioeconomic status . I do realize this is easy to say however we have to move this forward as a team . The children of today are our future it is important that we educate and instill values and work ethic in them . in order to excel positively .

  2. The article accurately describes a persistent and ever growing problem. I disagree with the implied intent that the outcomes are racially motivated. The piece has an accusatory tone as though there has been a racially motivated plan. The outcomes are the result of financially challenged and out right poor people. White, black and any other group. People of all races are in a disadvantaged position caused by lack of money and opportunity. It has been and remains that the poor will look to crime for resources and drugs to escape their circumstances. The first thing we need through out America is more jobs and jobs with salaries where any and all people regardless of color can earn a pay where one can live with dignity and enforce self respect. Unfortunately it seems that jobs for all has not been a thought for years. Instead of growing jobs with sufficient pay we are sending them abroad so that international companies can increase their income. Even education is wasted if people can’t use it due to a lack of jobs.

  3. Nice platitudes. I was waiting to hear some real solutions. Duncan’s statement was full of nothingness too.

    Schools are run by locally elected ordinary citizens. They reflect their regional culture. Mine reflects the concerns of white conservatives. You are welcome to read between the lines. Racism is perfectly fine. Bullying is bad – unless it is directed towards a homosexual or a person of a different color.

    Any teacher who tries to protect our most vulnerable or at-risk students is treated as a problem to be eliminated.

    I teach my county’s expelled teens. The majority are disabled (mostly ADHD with comorbid disabilities such as Oppositional Defiance Disorder and/or learning disabilities). Half are minority students even though our school district is 85% White.

    It’s discrimination pure and simple. Once a week I read the arrest records. A week never goes by that a former student isn’t arrested. They never stood a chance.

    As for me, I’ve been fighting hard for change in every way possible. In August I submitted a well-documented complaint to the Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. It took my whole summer to put it together. So far, nothing – except that I’ve been written-up three times.

    So if you are really my ambassador, really someone who speaks up for teachers while in Washington, then please tell them to put some bite into their words. I believed that I would get some back-up if I documented wrong-doing, but I was mistaken. I’ll be fired long before there is any change.

  4. The cause of the problem and the prevention is parenting NOT education or the government. The government is using the poor to advance its quest for total control. With the right parenting children will flourish and succeed. The government has been setting out to destroy the family in order for it to step in and take over and they have been very successful. Until parents understand they are being used and lied to we will never reduce poverty among minorities. GOOD PARENTING is the secret not more government. As long as the poor are held captive by the welfare system that facilitates the fatherless home they will never lift themselves out of poverty and that is EXACTLY where the government wants you to stay. What is being discussed in this article is the dumbing down of the rest of the kids. Bringing us all down to such a level of stupidity that future generations will look to the government for everything they need. This is Communism folks and it is nothing more than guaranteed poverty for all except the ruling class. It is everything our founding fathers ran away from when they created this great nation and we are handing right back to the ruling class. WAKE UP before it is too late because it is very close to being too late.

    • I disagree. The school{s} do have a lot to do with our children and what is being taught. And should never discriminate against anyone. Just as you have.

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