Guest Op-Ed: Education as a Pathway to the Beloved Commonwealth

By Marie-Frances Rivera, Jeraul Mackey and Imari K. Paris

In the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King described a “Beloved Community” as an anti-racist society committed to social and economic justice. Boston is one of the most educated cities in America, located in one of the most educated states in the nation. Our city and Commonwealth prides itself as being the first at many things. The best in the nation in sports, innovation, and education. America’s first public school, Boston Latin was founded here in 1635. A year later, teachers and preachers went on to create Harvard University, arguably the most prestigious institution of higher education in the United States. Today, Boston has one of the highest concentrations of postsecondary education opportunities, ranging from important technical certificate programs to in-demand baccalaureates. Yet, we are far from a world where all students receive a just and equal education.

Our standing as the cradle of our nation’s modern day education system eludes another recognition: unequal education access for Black and other people of color. For example, Harvard graduated its first Black student 235 years after its founding and it would take another 150 years before Black students were equally represented. As early as 1787, Black Bostonians fought against discrimination and inequality in public education. Both Kings, Martin and Coretta, returned to Boston in 1965 and along with leaders like Ruth Batson and Melnea Cass, marched in the historic Freedom Rally to demonstrate against education inequities in this city. This history of de facto racism and unequal treatment culminated in the 1974 court decision Morgan v. Hennigan which required BPS to desegregate underfunded majority-Black schools through redistricting and busing.  Prior to this reform, Black students at Boston Latin School made up only two percent of the student body. Forty years later, less than one in ten students at this exam school are Black despite a 30% Black enrollment in Boston’s public schools. We are losing ground on hard-won gains made by parents, students, civil rights organizations, and community members seeking a quality education. Our city’s history is a dual legacy of Black Bostonians’ resistance to inequality and of unequal educational opportunities in Boston and across our state.

In the middle of this seismic disruption, Bostonians have an opportunity to create a new legacy. Reimagining Dr. King’s “Beloved Community,” we propose creating a Beloved Commonwealth, an anti-racist community that meets the needs of our most vulnerable members. While this vision is broader than our education system, we firmly believe all of our public education institutions are a critical ingredient to economic mobility, especially for low-income families. Yet, despite our best intentions, our educational system often exacerbates inequality. Despite  robust college matriculation for Black and Latinx students, especially for Black girls, relatively few obtain a baccalaureate degree. Even students who graduate top of their class struggle to obtain advanced degrees and economic stability. And as we know research studies find degree attainment may not guarantee a living wage or break generational cycles of poverty, as many Black students are saddled with heavy student loan debt.

Creating a Beloved Commonwealth requires structural change. Book clubs and individual commitments are not enough if the systems we have – for high school admission, college admission, and college/post-graduate success – are unjust and stacked against less advantaged students. We have to make systemic changes across our  K-16 educational system.

We must embrace King’s clear vision by centering historically disadvantaged young people in our policymaking. As parents and families grapple with school reopening in the midst of a continued global health pandemic, our educational institutions must ensure all students achieve their dreams, gain knowledge and skills while helping to create a more educated, democratic valued, and anti-racist minded workforce in the region. This is the Beloved Community.

For our K-16 education system to meet this promise, we must see education as a public good that attenuates inequality and promotes effective citizenship. Today’s challenges and opportunities require a shared sense of community, commitment to justice, and transformative policy ideas. For education to be a pathway to the Beloved Community, we must:

Build an intentional pipeline of Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous teachers and educational leaders.

Decolonize the K-16 curriculum by centering the histories, experiences, and perspectives of the students pushed to the margins of society.

Remove police officers from schools and implement restorative justice practices.

Give higher education institutions the technical assistance and funding to produce anti-racist graduates.

Provide a basic income to all college-going students.

Ensure that housing exists for all families in the Commonwealth and that college students have subsidized and affordable housing while they are enrolled.

Make sure that K-16 schools and all of the necessary supports for students and families to thrive are adequately supported through our public dollars. 

The opportunities before us are countless. Boston and the Commonwealth need to foster connections between Black and Brown students and families, educators, civic, labor and business leaders. Together, we can create a new legacy that reflects the richness and diversity of its civic, educational and social fabric. This is one of the roads to expand the “Beloved Community” into the Beloved Commonwealth.

Marie-Frances Rivera is President at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

Jeraul Mackey is co-founder of the Black Doctoral Student Collective and a fifth-year Ph.D. student at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

Imari K. Paris Jeffries is Executive Director of King Boston, a Trustee of the UMass System, and a fourth-year Ph.D. student at UMass Boston’s Department of Higher Education.

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