Education Matters: The equity issue


The California Department of Education (CDE) has emphasized Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in its mission to improve educational outcomes for all students.

Marsha Sutton
(Copyright of Marsha Sutton)

Equity in particular has received the most attention recently, and for some has become a dirty word.

“Equity is everybody getting what they need when they need it,” explained Talisa Sullivan, San Diego County Office of Education’s Executive Director, Equity.

Providing equity means offering basic resources and support for all students that take into account the diverse needs of individuals, she said.

The controversy, she said, stems from the notion that “somebody is taking something away from them in order to give traditionally marginalized groups something.”

She said it’s about the fear of losing power and privilege and the false assumption that schools “want to change or correct history.”

But providing equity is simply allocating resources that can help level the playing field to give all students a chance at success, educators say.

“Ensuring equity in education is a necessary component in narrowing the achievement gap,” according to the CDE website. “Teachers and school leaders ensure equity by recognizing, respecting and attending to the diverse strengths and challenges of the students they serve.”

This means differentiating instruction, services and allocation of resources as ways to respond effectively to the particular needs of students.

It’s helpful to distinguish equity from equality.

Equality in schools, Sullivan said, is providing everyone with the same support and resources. Equity is providing all students with a different set of appropriate resources that they need to succeed.

Imagine an image showing four people – one is wheelchair-bound and the others are a large man, a slightly built woman and a child.

Del Mar Union School District Superintendent Holly McClurg explained: Equality means every person gets the same bike regardless of their needs, whereas equity means each individual receives a bike appropriate to their needs – one that is adapted to fit each person’s unique size and physical limitations.

“All children should have equitable access to a quality education in order to develop their full academic potential and be prepared to thrive in society,” she said.

Everyone plays a role

A recent San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) Equity Conference, held Jan. 19 and 20, offered the 1,100 attendees (about 800 from San Diego County) dozens of sessions focused on various aspects of equity in education.

A poster at the recent San Diego County Office of Education Equity Conference.
A poster at the recent San Diego County Office of Education Equity Conference.
(Marsha Sutton)

The session titled “Scaling for Success: Leading for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in a Passionate Society” was run by Shelley Petersen and Sharon Camarillo, Del Mar Union School District’s Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services and DMUSD’s Teacher on Special Assignment, respectively.

McClurg said her district “worked closely with SDCOE as we embarked on this work, and the county is aware of our commitment to our students with diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Because of this, DMUSD’s offer to present at the equity conference was accepted.

DMUSD’s objective in its “Diversity Equity Inclusion” plan states, “Ensure every child receives equitable access to a quality education in order to develop their full academic potential and prepare children and adults to thrive in a diverse society.”

Fundamental to the DEI work in Del Mar was the formation of committees that included staff at every level – not just principals and teachers but also custodians, librarians, administrative personnel, preschool and after-school staff, and others.

Camarillo said all DMUSD employees are each serving students in their own way.

By having everyone in the same room listening respectfully to one another and interacting as equals, “we strive to eliminate that power differential,” she said.

“If we’re talking about inclusion,” said Camarillo, it starts with the make-up of committee members. Respecting diverse perspectives and building relationships are core values, she said. “Everyone plays a role in impacting a student’s life,” Petersen said.

Parents and guardians are also involved in the discussions.

“It’s fair for parents to want to know, what are you doing with my children and what kind of learning are you offering,” Petersen said, adding that each site is developing its own plan for ways to communicate DEI objectives to parents.

She said the district is incorporating DEI into its core framework, rather than simply announcing that “now we’re going to do DEI” and just “check the box.”

Kids feel empowered

DMUSD started years ago by adopting a highly acclaimed Anti-Defamation League program called “No Place For Hate” (NPFH) [] at all the district’s nine schools, all of which are now designated No Place For Hate schools.

Although the ADL offers sample lessons, the program is “completely customizable” and is designed to work for each school’s needs, according to the website, so that schools can “engage students and staff in dialogue and active learning on the topics of bias, bullying, inclusion and allyship that matter most to your community.”

The program has a four-phased approach: form a committee, have staff and students sign a pledge to commit to making their school no place for hate, assess the school’s climate, and implement activities that “reflect on biased behavior and learn new ways to challenge bias and bullying.”

At DMUSD, students were often involved in designing NPFH lessons, Petersen said, which “helps kids feel empowered.”

The district’s five counselors determine the needs of each grade level for anti-bias education.

A primary component of the district’s DEI efforts, Camarillo said, is to recapture the “lost art of conversation” where ideas can be challenged “responsibly, respectfully and productively.”

Noting that there were no opt-outs, Petersen said it was mandatory for every teacher to adopt the DEI framework.

“Everyone matters,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”

One audience member representing a different school district said there would be considerable pushback in her district if every teacher were required to engage in the DEI work.

There was no advice on how to counteract this resistance.

The DEI program is evolving, both presenters said, noting that a language barrier still has to be addressed “if we’re thinking in terms of equity,” said Camarillo.

She acknowledged that political, logistical, financial and educational challenges exist in providing equity.

Future challenges include how to engage the community, making sure school libraries are inclusive in the material offered, and how to measure success.

The DMUSD school board was praised for its support. “The work cannot happen without board support,” Petersen said.

Teach them when they’re young

Troublesome issues have plagued the Del Mar Union School District in recent years, certainly. There’s the Del Mar Heights rebuild fiasco, serious complaints about top-down management practices, accusations of poor quality and lack of proper oversight in the special education department, and other concerns.

Also, the demographics in wealthy Del Mar are not exactly representative of other districts with far greater numbers of low-income and English language learners.

According to the 2022 California Dashboard, DMUSD, with 3,895 students in grades K-6, shows 8.9% of students socio-economically disadvantaged and 13.2% English learners.

Many other districts in the county have greater challenges.

To compare, the 2022 Dashboard for the Oceanside Unified School District, with 16,261 students in grades K-12, shows 71.6% socio-economically disadvantaged and 13.9% English learners.

The 2022 Dashboard for San Diego Unified School District, with 95,233 students in grades K-12, shows 55.9% socio-economically disadvantaged and 19% English learners.

Plus, special education students represent 10 to 15 percent of student populations in the state, on average.

But let’s give credit where credit is due.

DMUSD should be lauded for its efforts to implement effective Diversity Equity Inclusion programs that strive to help children ages 5 to 12 recognize bias, bullying and the long-term outcomes of the inequitable application of resources.

This likely means a re-allocation of funding to ensure equity. But what we give up in money we get in exchange for the hope of a better future for our young people.

By giving young students tools on how to respect diversity and embrace inclusion, we can offer them ways to appreciate everyone’s unique differences and help them realize that equity is not a dirty word.

If we teach them when they’re young, we might have half a chance that the lessons will carry them through the difficult years of middle school and high school – and eventually for the rest of their lives.

Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at

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