Equity and Excellence
“I don’t believe you can have equity and excellence.”
This quotation—in the middle of a story on GBH radio about my town’s schools—made me sit up straight. Apparently, parents in my town want to reverse course on the equity initiatives that our public schools have been investing in. Even liberal bubbles have dissenters.
(Though it turns out that the speaker, Ashley Jacobs, isn’t a neighbor at all; she is the founder of a Massachusetts-based anti-DEI group called Parents Unite. But the segment implies that her organization is offering support to the local pushback.)
Whenever I hear stories of liberal parents resisting equity work, I wonder what pushes them over the line. At what point does someone who votes for equal rights broadly pull back their support for them in their own community? Why do some people feel that their children lose out when other people’s children get attention?
I understand the parental drive to want the best for your child. We want our kids to move up, whether you’re the first in your family to go to college or a fourth-generation Ivy grad.
Perhaps we sometimes forget that our public schools are supposed to provide that opportunity for everyone.
I see the same tension within organizations adopting DEI initiatives. They may have an anti-racism statement on their websites, but I’ll still hear someone in a hiring meeting, when an applicant’s racial background is mentioned, say, “Shouldn't we just hire the best candidate?”
They are echoing Ashley Jacobs: equity somehow precludes excellence.
So how can we answer that?
Quite simply, it’s been proven false again and again. When Harvard Law School admitted women in 1950, there were no bathrooms designated for women. After petitioning the Dean, the women were allowed to share the janitor’s bathroom in the basement of Austin Hall.
That inequity—along with countless other barriers, small and large—has been changed. And you can’t tell me that women lawyers have contributed nothing to our society. A few of my personal heroes have served on the Supreme Court.
I’ve seen it play out in my own family. One of my nieces was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 5 and received targeted assistance to help her perform at her best. She was an honors student throughout junior high and today she is thriving at an elite high school. Equity led to excellence.
Our workplaces and schools alike should not be measured by whether a handful of the most advantaged are able to get farther ahead, but by the sum of their members’ accomplishments.
When those who have been held back by bias or difference can be brought to their full potential, everyone benefits. In that sense, too, equity leads to excellence.
I think my town’s schools are excellent because of the equity initiatives underway. I’m glad the majority of my neighbors and leaders enthusiastically agree.