Pandemic Only Reteaches America What We Should Have Learned Already about Public School Inequality and Child Poverty

What we expect public schools to accomplish has a lot to do with how much we take the institution of universal public schooling for granted. For a long time, we haven’t really been seriously considering the collective needs of our children and their public schools. And when children and their public schools struggle, we elect people with other priorities to represent us in the state legislature and Congress.

Back in 1998 in a book called A Passion for Democracy, the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber pointed out what a lot of people still fail to notice: “In many municipalities, schools have become the sole surviving public institutions and consequently have been burdened with responsibilities far beyond traditional schooling. Schools are now medical clinics, counseling centers, vocational training institutes, police/security outposts, drug rehabilitation clinics, (and) special education centers… Among the costs of public schools that are most burdensome are those that go for special education, discipline, and special services to children who would simply be expelled from (or never admitted into) private and parochial schools or would be turned over to the appropriate social service agencies (which themselves are no longer funded in many cities.)  It is the glory and the burden of public schools that they cater to all of our children, whether delinquent or obedient, drug damaged or clean, brilliant or handicapped, privileged or scarred. That is what makes them public schools.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, pp. 226-227) (emphasis in the original)

Last week in a powerful Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss revisits the same theme in a very different context.  She has noticed a thread that runs through two years of press coverage about public schools during the pandemic: “If you Google ‘lessons learned about schools during the pandemic,’ you will see a long list of articles that purport to tell us about all the things we learned about teaching and learning in the two years since the coronavirus crisis began in March 2020. Many of the pieces highlight similar ‘lessons’—on inequity, technology, in-school learning, funding mechanisms and other issues—that seemingly hadn’t been thought of before.”

Strauss believes we ought to have learned all of these “pandemic” lessons over the decades that preceded the onset of COVID-19. Here are some of the themes she observes in recent COVID press coverage: “We learned… that… in person school… is much better for most students…. Millions of students go to school without working HVAC systems…. Millions of students would go hungry if they didn’t get meals at school…. Millions of America’s young people go to school with significant mental health issues and that schools did not have the capacity to deal with them…. Technology in schools… has significant limits and is not the heart of great teaching…. Teachers don’t just teach subject matter but are asked to be counselors, role models, mentors, identifiers and reporters of child abuse, testing administrators, disciplinarians, child advocates, parents communicators, hall and lunch monitors…. School districts were largely not ready for a crisis of this magnitude and need to become more flexible to accommodate changes in routine and student needs.”

Strauss concludes: “(F)or anybody paying the slightest bit of attention there is nothing on the list of pandemic school ‘lessons’ that we didn’t already know before COVID-19—and for a long, long time.”

Among the biggest lessons we learned again during COVID is about inadequate school funding and inequity across districts and states. Strauss explains that federal Title I funding to support schools serving concentrations of the nation’s poorest children, is inadequate and not targeted enough to the nation’s very poorest schools.  Further, “At the state and local levels, where most of education funding emanates, we’ve read report after report over decades about the persistent differences in funding per student from district to district, state to state, suburb vs. urban, urban vs. rural. States have different ways they allocate K-12 and special funding—and the amounts vary widely; in fiscal year 2020, according to the Census Bureau, New York State spent $25,520 per student while Idaho spent $8,272 per student and Florida spent $9,937 per student.  There are vast differences within states as well; reports released periodically show wide differences across school district boundary lines. For example, a 2019 report by EdBuild found that ‘almost 9 million students in America—one in five public schoolchildren—live virtually across the street from a significantly whiter and richer school district.'”

In Schoolhouse Burning, published in 2020, constitutional scholar, Derek Black summarized the fiscal condition of school districts in the decade between the 2008 Great Recession and the onset of COVID-19: “Before the recession of 2008, the trend in public school funding remained generally positive… Then the recession hit. Nearly every state in the country made large cuts to public education. Annual cuts of more than $1,000 per student were routine.” “(I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33)

During COVID-19 we learned again about unequal access to computers and broadband.  Strauss writes: “The digital divide? The term emerged in the mid-1990s to describe the gap between families with access to computers and those who don’t. The definition broadened to include access to the Internet, and, later, to inequity in usage and skills… In April, 2020, according to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of parents with lower incomes who had children in school that were remote due to the pandemic said their children would likely face at least one of three digital obstacles to their schooling, such as a lack of reliable internet at home, no computer at home, or needing to use a smartphone to complete schoolwork.'”

Another thing we learned about again during COVID is America’s outrageous rate of child poverty. UNICEF statistics show that in 2018, 35 OECD nations had a child poverty rate lower than the rate in the United States.  Strauss reports on one of the many ways we relearned this lesson during COVID: “That children would go hungry without free and reduced-price meals at schools is, again, hardly news. The School Lunch act of 1946—repeat, 1946, was set up to help students from low-income schools get free or reduced-price lunches. The need was obvious then, and neither the awareness of that need nor the program ever disappeared. In 1966, the School Breakfast Program began a two-year pilot and that was extended a number of times. By 1975, the program received permanent authorization… According to the Children’s Defense Fund, in 2019, more than 1 in 7 children—nearly 11 million—lived in households considered ‘food insecure,’ meaning there isn’t enough to eat and families skip meals, eat low-cost food or go hungry.”

And during COVID we again learned about American students’ need for counseling and mental health support at school. Strauss writes: “There is a lot of attention now being placed on the mental health stresses on students during the pandemic…. But let’s be clear: Children have been in crisis in this country for years.” Strauss cites a declaration of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association. The declaration says: “Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020… and by 2018 suicide was the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24.”

Again and again, staff shortages in underfunded schools have left many students needing far more support. Strauss writes, “In U.S. public schools today, it’s estimated there is one school psychologist for every 1,381 students… According to the latest available information from the American School Counselor Association, there was one counselor for every 482 students in 2014-2015.  It’s nearly twice what the association recommends….”

Congress and the state legislatures could have taken extensive steps to reduce these challenges facing our children and their schools year after year, but such investments have been sporadic at best, and at the federal level during COVID, funding increases have been temporary. The allocation of temporary COVID relief from the federal government has not significantly alleviated the intersection of inadequate school funding and the unmet needs of children in school. Temporary COVID relief is a one-time investment, and public schools cannot hire salaried permanent staff with the dollars. Certainly COVID relief dollars were spent to alleviate the digital divide among children, but we know that lack of access to remote schooling during the pandemic still affected many children.

Long term solutions continue to be delayed.  While the Biden administration and many Congressional Democrats tried hard to pass Build Back Better—with permanent expansion of the Child Tax Credit to help the poorest American families with children, more dollars for childcare support, and other supports for the well being and health of poor children—the bill has languished in Congress with an uncertain future.

Another example is the fate of full-service wraparound Community Schools. The Children’s Aid Society began opening full-service Community Schools in New York City in 1992 and 1993 as a model for programming in schools where child poverty is concentrated. These are schools with family medical and social services located right in the school building. But in this year’s FY 2022 federal budget passed finally last month, after President Biden proposed spending $430 million for full-service Community Schools, Congress allocated only $75 million, an increase from the previous year’s investment of only $30 million, but not enough to make a dent in the meeting the need.

Valerie Strauss concludes her recent column: “So much for the ‘lessons’ we learned about our schools during the pandemic. The problems rooted in these lessons have long existed. Americans and the people they elect to make policy have known about them for decades. They have simply chosen to do other things rather than make serious attempts to fix them.”

Strauss adds one other thing that happened again during the pandemic: our tendency to blame teachers when things don’t go smoothly at school instead of looking at our own responsibility for resourcing schools adequately: “(T)here was a brief moment at the start of the pandemic that (teachers) were hailed as heroes…. But it didn’t take long for that narrative to… revert to the teacher-bashing of old as educators became villains for demanding vaccine mandates and safety precautions in schools…. (V)itriol about teachers and public schools became common again.” (Emphasis is mine.)

2 thoughts on “Pandemic Only Reteaches America What We Should Have Learned Already about Public School Inequality and Child Poverty

  1. One thing that became apparent to me as virtual schooling continued, was how many parents seemed to view school as convenient babysitting.

    On the one side, you have the anti-mandate and anti-teaching anything about slavery, race, LGBT, etc parents (and they often overlap)- you know, the ones who invade School Board meetings, scream, yell, and generally act more immaturely than their kids.

    On the other side, you have the “just open the schools because I need to go back to work and need babysitting” people who don’t care about curriculum or anything else.

    On the other, other side are the parents who care about education, the teachers, their kids- their health, their safety, their education, etc.

    Sigh. I’m just glad I retired long ago. I don’t know if I could even be a teacher today.

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