A New Value Proposition for the Public School

As we restart school in the face of three pandemics, it’s time for public schools to become places where we can recognize, heal, and reconcile our stories.

228 Accelerator
5 min readAug 3, 2020


A seventh grader walks by a Black History Month display at Sutton Middle School on her way to class.
A seventh grader walks by a Black History Month display at Sutton Middle School on her way to class. Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

As we bear witness to the improper use of force by federal law enforcement in DC, Portland, and around the country, we know that improper use of force at the hands of the state has been core to the American experience for people of color. Our schools are not shielded or protected; they are watching. Our children are not shielded or protected; they are watching. The integration of three pandemics — white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and COVID-19 — has dealt a death blow to the value and purpose of the public school system as we know it. As we restart school in the face of these pandemics, we are also asked to be the courageous designers and defenders of our American democracy.

Anti-Blackness makes race the signature marginalizing agent in our experience and keeps schools and communities racially segregated and asymmetrically resourced. This asymmetry is further revealed with COVID-19 and the breakneck-paced redesign of the school experience. As learning transitioned from in-person to on-screen overnight, we have seen that for families with access to wealth, technology, time, and literacy — who are overwhelmingly white — learning does not have to happen at school. We have seen that for those without the same proximity to these privileges, the learning that gives a child and family economic agency and visibility in our democracy, their experience suffers. This burden has been disproportionately experienced by essential workers, people of color, and working mothers.

If we are not intentional, the three pandemics will sever the lifeline to our democracy in the same way it has shaken our trust in leadership — and, worse still, our belief in ourselves. We need to mourn what was. That is important in the grieving process. But joy comes in the morning for those who can see past tomorrow to beyond — the place where we can think about not just what is, but what could be. This is the moment to dream about the version of the world we live in and the one we need to create.

To this end, we need a new value proposition for the public school system. What purpose must it serve, in the face of three pandemics, that can bring our communities and our country back together? What has to be true of the public school system to convince the most privileged of us of its merits and the most oppressed of us its virtue so we all can learn together? I ask again, what version of the world are we creating?

I am the third Caroline in my family. The first was born in the 1840s. The second was born in 1915. I was born in 1977. All three of us have seen a version of the same American story. While some white Americans might feel a need to separate themselves from the need for a new story because of the chronological distance of America’s first racial transgressions, our personal stories retell the past in the present. I am in the first generation of my family to live outside of the legislated segregation of Jim Crow. I am the first generation in my family to attend integrated schools. Slavery and its progeny are not far; they are dangerously close. My parents witnessed segregation. Our schools witnessed segregation. These stories are in our schools, and our schools seed the future.

It is time for a new story — one where the public school is imagined as the place to recognize, heal, and reconcile our stories. We have an opportunity to write this story together. For the first time in modern history, the only barrier separating a child in the best school and the child in the worst school is a Zoom link. For the first time in modern history, the only barrier separating a child in private school and a child in a charter school is a Zoom link. In the schooling experience, the old barriers of property taxes, tuition, zoning, and zip codes have been virtually eliminated and reduced to a series of letters, numbers, colons, periods, and backslashes. So, in the face of this unprecedented opportunity, will we stay comfortable and do what is easy? Or will we tap the root of roots that will test our mettle, our composition, spiritual reserves, and our skill, will, and courage as Americans? Will we plan some good trouble? Will we share our Zoom links?

If we accept the premise that racism and inequity are a part of the design of our American systems and our own stories, then we can also accept our own responsibility to be the champions of that redesign. We are the designers. As the giants of the civil rights movement transition to the ancestral plane, they leave us work to do. Our reopening plans have to be more intentional and intelligent than the forces working to separate us. Our reopening plans have to attend to spiritual and emotional intimacy, acknowledge anti-Blackness, and respect the need to be physically distant. Our plans need an intelligence that designs ways for us to come together across lines of difference and learn the competencies of civility that cannot be practiced in private. How we reopen school and restart school will be a bellwether of our collective intention and intelligence.

The cost of our separation is measured in the lives of the oppressed. It is measured in the resilience of our fragile understanding of ourselves and each other. So what version of the world are we charged to create in this moment? Are we reopening a school system that is equipped to respond to only COVID-19? Or will we accept the baton, accept the American design challenge of the century, and reconcile our country’s intimate relationship with racism, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness? It will take all of us — those of us just starting the journey and those of us who have been on this path for lifetimes.



228 Accelerator

228 Accelerator is an equity accelerator that facilitates the creation and transformation of schools and education organizations.