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Palm Beach County School Board Reverses Course On Commitment To 'Dismantling Structures Rooted In White Advantage'

Palm Beach County schools superintendent Donald Fennoy wears a mask during a school board meeting.
Allen Eyestone/Palm Beach Post
Palm Beach County schools superintendent Donald Fennoy.

A divided school board voted after hearing from a divided public.

The Palm Beach County school board voted 4-3 Wednesday evening to edit a newly adopted equity statement, removing a controversial commitment to "dismantling structures rooted in white advantage" after listening to more than four hours of mixed public testimony.

Initially, school board members argued that the reason to make the pledge was borne out in data: Students of color lag behind their white peers in educational opportunities and outcomes within the school district. Many parents and several religious leaders agreed that the statement was an important first step in addressing long-standing inequities and they urged the board to resist pressure to change course.

But the school board auditorium and an overflow room were also full of parents who opposed the phrase, using politically-charged rhetoric like making comparisons to the Holocaust and arguing that the district's leaders were Marxists or communists trying to indoctrinate children.

Some invoked former President Donald Trump and his ally Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, telling the board members "you're fired" and stressing that DeSantis would step in on their behalf.

They argued the district was planning to teach critical race theory, which DeSantis has vowed to keep out of schools amid a national backlash following last year's renewed movement for racial justice. Critical race theory, which essentially examines how racism operates in society, is not referred to in the district's equity statement.

Other parents argued teaching about racism and "white advantage" would make white children hate themselves or sow division among white students and their peers of color.

Some also said racism and white privilege don't exist and that race is something students should learn about at home, not at school.

Despite that, along with board members and Superintendent Donald Fennoy describing much of the feedback as misinformed and insulting, the intense pushback convinced the school board to nix the phrase.

Members argued that the uproar would distract from the work of improving education for vulnerable students, including not only Black and Latino students but also students with disabilities, those who are still learning English and those in the LGBTQ+ community.

"We have to make sure we have community buy-in on this, and at this point, let's not focus on keeping the words at the expense of losing the community support," said School Board Chair Frank Barbieri, who is white.

"Taking those words out still leaves the statement very powerful and it gets the job done," he said.

While the equity statement will no longer include the phrase "white advantage," it still includes a pledge to improve the quality of education for marginalized children.

"The School District of Palm Beach County is committed to dismantling racism and other systems of oppression and inequity," the statement reads, in part. "Achieving racial equity requires proactive and continuous investment in historically marginalized groups who have endured centuries of systemic oppression."

School board members Debra Robinson and Alexandria Ayala, who are Black and Latina, respectively, expressed their disappointment with their colleagues' willingness to abandon the commitment to ending "white advantage."

"Do we really think that changing a few words is where the divisiveness and the screaming ends?" Ayala said. "It's not going to stop. When do we stop catering to the loudest group?"

The Miami-Dade County district faced a similar response last year when the school board voted to improve the way racism is taught in schools.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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