By: Maya King and Nicole Gaudiano
The pandemic could widen the achievement gap. A generation of students is at risk.
In New York City, the nation's largest school district, teachers and students of color say they don't feel safe returning to school. Many of their schools lack windows that open, an ample supply of soap, masks or working ventilation systems — making it nearly impossible to navigate live classes in the middle of a pandemic.
An hour’s drive from the U.S. Capitol, about 27,000 Baltimore city school children — 1 in 3 students — do not have computers vital for virtual school. Thousands lack reliable wireless internet access.
And in Salinas, Calif., a photo of two elementary school girls huddled over their laptops and using free Wi-Fi outside a Taco Bell went viral last month, raising alarms in this majority Latino city and seizing the attention of public officials.
“This is California, home to Silicon Valley … but where the digital divide is as deep as ever,” tweeted Kevin de León, a Democratic member-elect of the Los Angeles City Council and former president pro tem of the California Senate.
Yet in wealthy neighborhoods across the country, some students are safely continuing their education via small “learning pods,” where some affluent parents shell out hundreds or even thousands of dollars for private instruction. It’s driving concerns that wealthier kids, many of whom live in predominantly white neighborhoods, are getting an unfair advantage.
The split is emblematic of a core truth of the American public education system: Gaps in access to school resources fall along racial and socioeconomic lines, and that gap has been magnified during virtual schooling. Majority nonwhite school districts receive an average of $23 billion less than predominantly white school districts, despite serving roughly the same number of students, according to a 2019 study from EdBuild, a school funding research group that closed in June.
This translates to more than $2,200 less spent on each nonwhite student than on each white student per year. It solidifies a pattern of systematic disenfranchisement from the moment children begin grade school — setting these students up for a much harder life.
Unequal funding at the state and local levels maintain well-resourced schools in mostly white neighborhoods while those serving mostly Black, Latino and low-income white students struggle to finance basic supplies. And while not all low-income schools are predominantly Black or Latino, students of color are overrepresented in underserved school populations.
The spread of the coronavirus has unearthed and amplified these inequities.
One in three Black, Latino or American Indian/Alaska Native families, for example, do not have high-speed home internet and are more likely than their white peers to be disconnected from online learning, a recent analysis shows.
“Those who are at the bottom of the achievement gap are much worse off because of Covid-19 and distance learning,” said Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, “and the achievement gap is exacerbated.”
While many on the left say the inequities magnified by the virus have their roots in school segregation and systemic racism, the Trump administration points to school choice as a solution.
“The pandemic is exacerbating something Secretary [Betsy] DeVos has been pointing out for 30 years: Those who can afford to do so leave schools that aren’t meeting their needs, and those who can’t afford to do so have no options,” said Angela Morabito, a spokesperson for the Department of Education. “Righting that wrong is the core premise of school choice, and why President Trump and Secretary DeVos so strongly believe the money should follow the student.”
The pandemic has exposed long-standing disparities that aren’t directly linked to teaching, too.
Many schools serving low-income Black and Latino students don’t even have windows that open to increase air circulation, something the CDC recommends for keeping schools safe, said Cornell University professor Noliwe Rooks, the author of “Cutting School: The Segronomics of American Education.”
"Covid isn't just revealing racial inequities," Rooks said. "It's reproducing it. It's making it worse."
Most money for public schools — about 93 percent on average — comes from state and local taxes, and local property taxes are the largest single source of revenue, said Michael Griffith, a school finance expert at the Learning Policy Institute. So lower-income districts with fewer local resources tend to be more reliant on revenue from state income and sales taxes, which are less stable than property taxes during an economic crisis.
That leads to a pattern in which the gap between wealthy and poor districts narrows during “good times and then opens back up again, during the next recession,” Griffith said.
“What we saw in the recession of the early '80s, '90s and during the Great Recession, is a separation of the haves and have-nots,” he said. “The wealthy districts that are more reliant on local funding do OK and weather the storm. It's the places that are lower income, in poorer areas, that take a greater hit.”
Congress sought to help level the playing field in 1965 with the Title I program that provides funding to predominantly low-income schools. It allows the federal government to kick in additional money above each state’s base spending for every kid eligible for additional assistance. More than a half century later, the federal government sends schools $16 billion a year through Title I grants — but still falls billions of dollars short of the 40 percent max allowed under the law.
The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools found in a 2018 study that Title I was underfunded by $347 billion between 2005 and 2017. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden says he wants to triple funding for Title I schools.
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