Palm Beach County schools propose axing policy references to barriers based on race, LBGTQ

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Update: The Palm Beach County School Board passed the latest version of its equity policy on April 12. Read the final version here.

The Palm Beach County School Board has agreed to remove references to “inequities and institutional racism” in its equity policy after pressure from the state to fall in line with legislation that Gov. Ron DeSantis has championed in an effort to combat what he calls “wokeness” in Florida schools.

The school board reviewed the policy Wednesday, developed through collaboration with community groups in 2021, and the charter for its diversity, equity and inclusion committee.

Equity policies, intended by districts to formalize commitments to supporting LGBTQ+ students and acknowledge systemic inequities and racism, have become targets of the state Department of Education looking to implement DeSantis' parental-rights-in-education laws.

Previously: Under ‘attack’ from state officials, Palm Beach County schools revise equity statement

While the board didn’t make the policy final with a vote, the members agreed to delete and completely replace four paragraphs and make other language changes that appear to walk back parts of it.

Instead of teaching students to “interrupt and dismantle harmful or inequitable practices and policies, eliminate implicit and explicit biases,” the proposed equity policy states that the district will aim to develop students’ “full academic and social potential and to cultivate (their) unique gifts, talents and interests.”

Board members agreed to ax references to removing academic barriers based on race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability or socioeconomic status of students, and added language to clarify that school curricula be “age and developmentally appropriate.”

From December: Palm Beach County schools reviewing LGBTQ+ policies after state raises legal questions

The existing policy states that systemic barriers can sometimes lead to low academic performance for “African American, Haitian, of other African descent, Hispanic, Latino, Guatemalan, Mayan, English Language Learners, economically disadvantaged, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ), and students with disabilities.”

It says, “This is neither a coincidental occurrence or an accurate reflection of how these students are capable of performing.”

The proposed policy deletes the entire section.

From May 2021: Palm Beach County school board's new core principles call for equity, ‘dismantling racism’

The whole equity policy will come back to the school board for adoption at a future board meeting, although Chief Operating Officer Joseph Sanches did not say when.

Board members said little about the proposed policy Wednesday, but they have in the past underscored the importance of continuing equity work even if the state criticizes formal diversity, equity and inclusion policies.

“Words are words. Actions are actions,” school board member Alexandria Ayala said at a December board meeting. “I think it’s been made clear by this body and our employees who I see nearly every day that our intent and our goals remain the same: It’s to support each child that we serve in whatever way that is needed.”

Why is Palm Beach County's school board rewriting its equity policy now?

The move comes two months after a letter from Jacob Oliva, senior chancellor at the Department of Education, to Superintendent Mike Burke saying that several sections in the district’s equity policy and LGBTQ+ support guide related to transgender and nonbinary students violate parental rights laws.

In December, the school board agreed to strip its equity statement of commitments to dismantling racism and systems of oppression.

References to LBGTQ issues may be taken out of Palm Beach County schools' equity policy.
References to LBGTQ issues may be taken out of Palm Beach County schools' equity policy.

The district's official equity statement is separate from the equity policy and LGBTQ+ support guide targeted in Oliva's letter.

The equity policy outlines financial commitments, instructional methods and student discipline programs used to "promote equity and access for all students," while the equity statement is the stated purpose of that policy. The LGBTQ+ support guide is an internal handbook written for teachers and staff to help them support LGBTQ+ students in and out of class.

The school board’s general counsel Shawn Bernard on Wednesday said the state has reviewed the proposed equity policy, but state officials haven’t approved the draft.

“I don’t want anyone to walk away from this discussion thinking that they have given a stamp of legal sufficiency on anything that we provided,” she said. “They did say that they were open to our sharing information with them and they would be willing to flag concepts for us to take a closer look at if there was something concerning.”

Here’s a breakdown of what the board agreed to take out and add into the equity policy.

Out: What may get cut

The School Board of Palm Beach County is committed to eliminating race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability or socioeconomic status as predictors for academic outcomes. For the purposes of this policy, “equity” is defined both as an outcome and as an action.

Equity as an outcome would be the state that would be achieved if a student's success and well being was no longer predictable by any social, cultural or economic factor. Equity as an action in schools involves individuals who are willing to:

  • Interrupt and dismantle harmful or inequitable practices and policies, eliminate implicit and explicit biases, and create truly inclusive, culturally responsive school environments for adults and children;

  • Ensure that each child receives what they need when they need it, to develop to their full academic and social potential.

  • Cultivate the unique gifts, talents and interests that reside in every child.

The District will select and develop instructional materials that are historically accurate and represent the experiences of a diverse school community.

In: What may get added

The School District of Palm Beach County is committed to creating safe, equitable and inclusive learning environments that ensure students have what they need to be successful in life.

The School District of Palm Beach County will provide each student — regardless of race, ethnicity, economic status, disability, national origin, religious affiliation, gender identity or sexual orientation — access to any and all opportunities, resources and support they need to develop agency, voice and achieve their dreams.

The School District of Palm Beach County will embrace, celebrate and honor our students, families, staff and community members and their unique cultural histories, while ensuring each student achieves personal, academic and sustainable success.

The District will select and develop historically accurate, age and developmentally appropriate instructional materials.

Here's a look at the redlined document:

Katherine Kokal is a journalist covering education at The Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at Help support our work, subscribe today!

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Palm Beach County schools may change equity policy amid state pressure