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The pursuit of equity in education

Roger Tilles is Long Island's representative on the

Roger Tilles is Long Island's representative on the state Board of Regents. Credit: Hans Pennink/Hans Pennink

Sometimes it’s difficult not to favor one goal over the other. While our policies are for all, we must take into account the diversity of all the districts we represent. Some have needs vastly different from others. My philosophy has been that all students are all our kids. Until all students are provided equal opportunities to succeed, we as an Island are not succeeding.

I and my neighbors grew up in a wealthy district that had every imaginable advantage: great school buildings, excellent teachers, board members whose priority was students, and parents active in educating their children. We didn’t feel guilty about the advantage of living in a great community. But over time it became clear how much of an advantage we had over others.

As a member of a family instrumental in developing Levittown in the 1950s (my father built the then-largest shopping center on Long Island along Hempstead Turnpike), I didn’t know that some returning soldiers were excluded because of their race from the education benefits of the GI bills and cheap FHA loans. In Levittown, especially, restrictive covenants prohibited blacks from purchasing in William Levitt’s vision of suburbia. These government policies denied a generation the ability to build wealth.

When I was a commercial developer and chair of the Long Island Regional Planning Board, I became more aware that institutional racism in zoning processes — which resulted in some of LI’s neediest neighborhoods sitting across the street from some of our wealthier ones — contributed to educational disparities. That became clearer after I was rebuffed by town supervisors and others when I brought to them what I thought were reasonable requests for affordable housing.

Starting out as a Regent 17 years ago, I joined a board that didn’t always consider the extent to which these land-use policies created some of the most segregated school districts in the nation. Bad decisions made by others, even in good faith, can’t indict those who come later. But these governmental and societal decisions have created present-day educational inequalities. We don’t have to feel guilty, today, to feel a responsibility to try to remedy whatever factors grant some kids great educational advantages while denying them to others.

We all must realize that the children who face the toughest challenges at home must have every advantage possible in school. These differences in resources are huge, including the number of AP courses and enrichment opportunities, as well as role models, mentors and guidance counselors per student.

When called on to make policy decisions, we have a responsibility to ameliorate the educational differences that negatively impact access to opportunity. Until all kids are considered our kids, we cannot claim to have achieved excellence or equity.

The Regents’ new policy of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion seeks to balance the needs of excellence and equity. We are committed to fostering a culture of inclusion, diversity and mutual respect for all Long Islanders, and expanding opportunities for those with disabilities. Students should be exposed to history that is not necessarily comfortable. The standard history books do not often reflect regrettable institutional decisions that were based upon race, gender and disability.

Education and experience gained over a lifetime fed the responsibility to create the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policy. Our local districts must implement what the Regents are suggesting. All of our students should feel the same sense of individual responsibility. Hopefully, educators, parents and students will respect these policies, and encourage their implementation in their districts.

This guest essay reflects the views of Roger Tilles, Long Island’s representative on the state Board of Regents.

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