Berkeley school district cannot cut resources from students who need them most

CITY AFFAIRS: At a time when Berkeley schools are facing an equity crisis, it can’t afford to defund diversity programs

Illustration of students in a classroom. A hand symbolizing budget cuts takes away a student's books
Emily Bi/Staff

The Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, board is considering a number of funding cuts to ensure its financial feasibility. Among the list is a proposed decrease in funding to the Office of Family Engagement and Equity, which aims to provide support to underserved students and their families — affecting nearly 40 percent of students in the district.

It should go without saying that the financial sustainability of a public school district should never come at the cost of supporting the students who rely on it most.

At a time when BUSD continues to face issues related to diversity and inclusion in its schools, the board is proposing cuts to a program created to safeguard equity. The Civil Rights Data Collection found in 2015 that white students comprised nearly 40 percent of the student population at Berkeley High School as well as the majority of the school’s “Gifted and Talented” students. The school is also separated into five learning communities, which have repeatedly been criticized for perpetuating implicit segregation between white students and students of color.

Education is a basic human right, but unfortunately, not all students start at the same place — inclusion and equity programs exist to bridge these gaps. Diversity programs acknowledge the systemic disadvantages that prevent educational equity. To ensure that all students can meet their potential, schools can’t pretend that students start at the same place — something that BUSD clearly acknowledges in its mission statement.

In 2008, BUSD committed to the 2020 Vision for Berkeley’s Children and Youth to ensure that “all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, and income, who enter Berkeley Schools beginning in 2007 (and remain in the district) will achieve equitable outcomes with no proficiency differences by the time they graduate in June, 2020.” Cutting crucial diversity and equity offices contradicts this plan in a manner that is both ignorant and tone-deaf.

And the need for these offices is even more critical now, as the district has seen an increase in homeless and housing-insecure students and families over the last year. According to a report on the program’s performance, in 2017-18, the district’s Office of Family Engagement and Equity:

  • Provided immigration support for families
  • Supported homeless families with food, clothing, housing, student enrollment assistance and communication
  • Organized BUSD’s first “Black History Oratorical Fest”
  • Created a “K to College School Supply and Dental Hygiene Giveaway” for low-income families
  • Coordinated college readiness and financial aid clinics

Let’s be honest — no one likes budget cuts, but everybody is grappling with them. Teachers in Los Angeles had to strike for almost a week in order for their voices to be heard on critical issues such as better wages and increased access to physical and mental health resources in schools. In Oakland, public schools are struggling to stay open. Budget cuts are necessary to ensure the long-term financial feasibility of schools, but these cuts — while unavoidable — should never harm historically marginalized community members. Schools must research and implement alternatives to uphold their commitment to educational equity.

If BUSD is truly committed to its 2020 vision, then it needs to invest in equity — not defund it.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.