Experts to Congress: health pandemic will worsen racial disparities in public education

Experts to Congress: health pandemic will worsen racial disparities in public education

- in COVID-19, Education, Top Story
Members of Congress worry the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated racial inequities in education, especially among Black and Latinx students who are less likely to have access to internet access at home.(Getty Image/Credit: Django)

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

“Our education system is fraught with inequities that existed before COVID-19,” John King Jr., who served as Secretary of Education in 2016-2017, told lawmakers on the House Education and Labor Committee. 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, Latinx and Native American students were disproportionately less likely to have access to devices and home internet service and to parents who were able to telework.

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

Before the coronavirus, Black and Latinx 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.

All of these phenomena appear to be present in North Carolina.

In 2019, the Center for Racial Equity in Education published a report entitled “E(race)ing Inequities: The State of Racial Equity in North Carolina Public Schools,” in which it examined 30 indicators of educational access and outcomes and found that “students of color have diminished access to the resources that affect success, including access to advanced coursework, experienced teachers, and racially/ethnically matched teachers.”

Similarly, in February of 2020, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice reported that Black students in North Carolina were 4.3 times more likely than white students to be suspended from school during the 2018-19 school year.

“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 said in his written testimony.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had disproportionate effects on Black Americans in health, economics and education. Nationwide, Black 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 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.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has reported more than 2.2 million COVID-19 cases nationwide and nearly 120,000 deaths related to the virus as of Monday.

Rep. Alma Adams

The virus has adversely affected communities of color. In North Carolina, Black people account for more than a third of the reported 1,251 COVID-19 deaths in the state, even though they make up 22% of the state’s population, according to data analysis by the COVID Project.

Rep. Alma Adams, a North Carolina Democrat, said the pandemic could exacerbate the student loan and default crisis. She cited research from the Brookings Institute that estimated 40% of borrowers would default on their loans by 2023. “That does not begin to account for the impact of the COVID crisis,” Adams said. “We know certain students are at greater risk of default. Black borrowers who have completed a bachelors degree default at five times the rate of white borrowers complete their degrees, and are more likely to default than white borrowers who leave college without a degree. I am concerned the student loan default crisis will worsen in the wake of COVID-19.”

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 Education Secretary Betsy 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.

Lisa Sorg contributed to this report.