Congress told pandemic will worsen racial disparities in public schools

By: - June 25, 2020 5:50 am

WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated racial inequities in education, a disparity that Congress needs to help rectify, President Barack Obama’s former education chief told lawmakers this week.

“Our education system is fraught with inequities that existed before COVID-19,” John King Jr., who served as secretary of education in 2016 to 2017, told lawmakers on the House Education and Labor Committee Monday. He is president and CEO of the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that focuses on opportunity and achievement gaps in education. 

During school closures, researchers found that Black, Latino and Native American students were disproportionately less likely to have access to devices and home internet service and parents who were able to telework.

Researchers estimated that students could lose seven months of learning on average during the pandemic. But they found Black students may fall behind by more than 10 months, and Latino students by nine months, according to an analysis by research firm McKinsey & Co.

Before the coronavirus, Black and Latino children were already less likely to have access to high-quality preschool. School districts with higher populations of students of color often have less money than majority white districts. And Black male students experience disproportionate suspension.

“Our nation’s students of color and their families find themselves enduring a pandemic that disproportionately impacts their health and safety, mired in an economic crisis that disproportionately affects their financial well-being, and living in a country that too often still struggles to recognize their humanity,” King wrote in his written testimony.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had disproportionate effects on Black Americans in health, economics and education. Nationwide, African Americans are dying at nearly two times the rate of their population share, according to the COVID Project from The Atlantic. 

“We must acknowledge the role race plays in pointing out the disparate impacts that catastrophic events have on Black and minority communities,” said U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), who called into the remote hearing from her home.

“Many of us have heard the old saying, ‘When America gets a cold, Black America gets pneumonia.’ That happens to Black America when America has a pandemic too,” Wilson said.

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) called out both President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a Michigan native.

“President Trump and Secretary DeVos just last week claimed school choice is the ‘civil rights cause of our time,’ and that’s just honestly comical, but unsurprising,” Levin said. “Because in Michigan, we know school choice causes segregation in our time.” 

As of Wednesday,  61,953 Michiganders have tested positive for COVID-19 and 5,868 have died. In the United States, there are more than 2.3 million confirmed cases and 121,279 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The virus has adversely affected communities of color.

In Michigan, African Americans account for 36% of cases and 41% of COVID-19 deaths in the state, even though they make up 14% of the state’s population, according to data analysis by the COVID Project.

Blacks are 40% of Michigan COVID-19 deaths. Officials want to know why.  

Schools face funding gap

Even before the pandemic, researchers identified a significant racial funding gap in education, Nationwide, predominately white school districts received $23 billion more than predominantly nonwhite school districts in state and local funding in 2016, even though they served roughly the same number of children, according to the report released last February by EdBuild, a New Jersey-based research and advocacy group that focuses on school funding. 

The funding gap results from the reliance on property taxes as the main support for school funding, so schools in wealthier areas can raise more money, the report found.

Public school budgets could face a further blow in light of the economic downturn resulting from the coronavirus. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates states may face a $615 billion revenue shortfall over the next three years. 

“Unless the government provides immediate relief to state and local governments, it won’t be a matter of whether education funding is cut but how much those cuts in education can be,” said Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that lawmakers passed as emergency relief provided states over $13 billion for school districts, but some school districts have said they will still face a significant shortfall. Schools also face added pressure to incorporate both in-person and distance learning and invest in more cleaning supplies and protective equipment for staff.

The CARES Act directed the money to be distributed using a formula that favors high-poverty schools. But DeVos used a calculation that allowed millions of dollars to also go to private schools.

King’s organization and more than 70 other education groups have asked Congress for significant additional aid to schools: at least $250 billion of new aid for K-12 schools and higher education. 

The two national teachers’ unions — the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association — and the NAACP, Center for American Progress and Sandy Hook Promise all signed onto the request, in a letter to congressional leaders last month.

Valerie Rawlston Wilson, director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute, said schools need standards in place for teachers, staff and student safety.

At the federal level, the Trump administration has issued guidance for workers and employers in schools and other sectors, outlining standard precautions. But the guidance is largely voluntary, and so far the Trump administration has resisted calls for new regulations. 

“I don’t know that parents will feel very confident in sending their students back to school if they don’t have consistent enforceable standards,” Wilson said.

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Allison Winter
Allison Winter

Allison Winter is a Washington D.C. correspondent for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes the Michigan Advance.