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As the pandemic continues to bring challenges to communities across the country and as learning looks nothing like it has in the past, we have a unique opportunity to reimagine our education system. Recognizing that pandemic-related budget constraints will be significant, it is more important than ever that we identify high-impact policies and programs that will make the biggest difference for students. The DRIVE (Developing a Representative and Inclusive Vision for Education) Task Force, established by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, recently completed its work to study the state of educator diversity and make recommendations for improvement, and we believe that these recommendations can lead to an increase in the number of educators of color in North Carolina and be a model for other states to follow.

Why is this the issue we want to lead with in lean times? The research is clear. Students of color perform better on assessments, feel more confident in themselves and their abilities, and experience better long-term outcomes, just by having had a teacher who looks like them. A study co-authored by Constance Lindsay at the UNC School of Education shows that having a Black teacher for just one year in elementary school reduced the number of Black students who dropped out of school by 29%. And for Black boys from very economically disadvantaged backgrounds, they are nearly 40% less likely to drop out when they have had at least one Black teacher in elementary school. Students of color deserve to see educators who can serve as mirrors and windows, teachers who can both reflect their cultural wealth and provide an opportunity to view into another’s experiences.

Nationwide, the majority of our public school students are students of color, but teachers of color represent less than 20% of teachers in public schools. In November, The Education Trust released a comprehensive data tool providing a state-by-state landscape analysis of data and state policies around educator diversity. In North Carolina, the student population is more than 50% students of color, but the educator workforce is nearly 80% white. It is unacceptable that students in North Carolina and nationwide are deprived of access to strong, diverse educators.

But let us be clear: educators of color matter for all students—not just students of color. Experts suggest that simply taking a class with an educator of color leads white students to challenge previously held racial stereotypes, thus creating a more accepting and tolerant atmosphere for all students.

The contributions of people of color are essential to our nation’s economy, innovation and prosperity (and have been for as long as America has existed). Our students will live and work in communities with people who are not like themselves. Representation matters in all fields for young people to see what they can achieve—and educators are among the first to help sow the seeds of potential. That’s why we must make certain that educators of color are helping to mold and shape the next generation of leaders.

It is important to acknowledge that just getting more educators of color into the classroom is not enough. A recent study by The Education Trust and Teach Plus, “If You Listen, We Will Stay,” examined why teachers of color are leaving the classroom at higher rates than their peers and the challenges they face. Tantamount among them were navigating unfavorable working conditions, deprivation of agency and autonomy, and the psychological and financial cost of being an educator of color.

The plan set forth by the Task Force seeks to identify and address the root causes of the barriers that deter educators of color from entering and remaining in the profession. From addressing the financial challenges of becoming a teacher through scholarships, loan forgiveness and tuition reimbursement, including expanding the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program to state Historically Minority-Serving Institutions, to expanding anti-racist and culturally sustaining pedagogy, and developing support networks and professional growth opportunities, the report provides a comprehensive overview of what it will take for North Carolina to develop and maintain an educator workforce that reflects the state’s rich diversity. Most importantly, the recommendations and strategies set forth by the Task Force sought to challenge state institutions to look inward and reform policies and practices that inherently disadvantage or disenfranchise educators of color.

We were honored to participate in the DRIVE work to urge state leaders to do what’s right for educators of color by driving real policy change that supports, empowers and invests in them. As educators and leaders, we hope that North Carolina’s policymakers and education stakeholders will follow the path set forth by the DRIVE Task Force to make good on the promise of diversity and inclusion. Our students are depending on them.

—John B. King Jr. is the president and CEO of The Education Trust and served as the U.S. secretary of education under President Barack Obama.

—Javaid Siddiqi, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of The Hunt Institute and served as the Virginia secretary of education.