How COVID exposed the ways our education system harms the republic
Parents, teachers and politicians have been struggling for weeks over how schools should respond to the omicron surge, trying to balance the difficulties and losses associated with at-home learning and the dangers to student health of in-person learning.
The pandemic has forced institutions to choose between bad outcomes. There are no perfect solutions. But the outcomes are worse, and the choices more limited, because of America’s deliberately callous and deliberately inequitable educational system.
American schools have historically been as much about protecting the status of the powerful as about cultivating the broad knowledge and engagement in democracy that a republic requires. Poor students and students of color in the United States have long received worse education than their wealthier, whiter peers. Covid has turned a slow-rolling, generational cruelty into an immediate catastrophe.
Given our history, it’s unlikely that even our current orgy of failure and tragedy will prompt change. But if we want an educational system that is better prepared for a crisis, and which can better prepare the whole nation for the crisis, then change is what we need.
Schools are mostly funded by property taxes. This means that poor neighborhoods with a low tax base have poorly funded schools; wealthy areas with a high tax base have well-funded schools.
Discrepancies are stark.
A 2018 study found that high-income schools receive about $1,000 more in funding per student than low-income schools. Schools with the lowest concentrations of students of color receive about $1,800 more per student than schools with high concentrations of Black, Hispanic and Native American students.
Local gaps can be even more outrageous. Majority white suburban counties around Chicago have $10,000 more per student than the majority minority Chicago public school system.
These inequities are exacerbated and enabled by ongoing segregation. Americans like to think that school segregation ended in 1954 when the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education outlawed discrimination. The fact, though, is schools never integrated.
A 2017 study found that only 12.9 percent of white students attended schools with a high concentration of students of color as compared to 69.2 percent of Black students. Moreover, 72.4 percent of Black children attend high-poverty schools while only 31.3 percent of white students do.
Residential segregation, school segregation and a funding system that accepts or even encourages inequity make it easy for affluent white people to hoard educational resources, further impoverishing the most disadvantaged children in the country.
No school was really ready for covid. But in an educational landscape shaped by vast racial and economic inequities, some schools were a lot more ready than others.
In wealthy well-funded school systems, students often had computers at home or schools had them on hand. Wealthy districts have more counselors. Affluent families are more likely to have a history of high school completion, and students are less likely to drop out when faced with the learning barriers of the pandemic. Affluent families are also more likely to be able to replace school meals and to have space for students to study at home.
Factors such as these predictably contributed to worse outcomes for poor students of color.
A December analysis of student achievement in fall 2021 found that students had lost considerably due to stress and the limitations of remote learning. After a year of the pandemic, students knew only 67 percent of math and 87 percent of reading that they would typically have learned for their grade-level.
In schools that serve mostly students of color, though, the numbers were even worse: 59 percent of math and 77 percent in reading. Disparities like these are probably what prompted Nikole Hannah-Jones, the editor of the 1619 Project, to push for schools to continue with in-person learning during omicron.
The problem, as Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa noted in response to Hannah-Jones, is that children in Black and brown working class communities aren’t just vulnerable to disruptions in learning. They’re also extremely vulnerable to the pandemic itself.
Black parents have more difficulty getting access to vaccines, citing difficulty in traveling to vaccine sites, worries that they may have to pay out-of-pocket and uncertainty about whether they can trust vaccine providers. Hispanic parents disproportionately say they have trouble taking off from work to get their children vaccines.
Data is sporadic, but available figures from seven states all show that Black children have been vaccinated at lower rates than white and Hispanic children. In Michigan, where 42 percent of white children 12-19 have received at least one vaccine dose, only 27 percent of Black children have.
Black and white hospitalization rates for children are comparable: 364 per 10,000 for white children, 340 per 10,000 for Black children. But Hispanic rates, at 533 per 10,000, and Native American rates, at 613 per 10,000, are disturbingly high.
Children are also affected when adult loved ones become sick.
Based on age-adjusted data, Hispanic, Black, and Native American people are about three times as likely to be hospitalized, and about as twice as likely to die from covid as their white peers.
Given these figures, it seems possible that higher rates of disruption of learning among Black and brown children could be linked not just to poorer-resourced schools, but to a higher likelihood of trauma resulting from the loss of caregivers and parents.
So what’s to be done?
In the short term, we have only bad choices. Remote learning is likely to lead to poor outcomes, especially for less affluent Black and brown students. In-person learning is likely to lead to more disease and death, especially for Black and brown families.
PPE and testing can help make schools safer – but poorer schools also have less access to those. The American Rescue Plan was supposed to cover the gap. In Chicago, though, teachers unions say Mayor Lori Lightfoot did not invest available resources in schools and there has been a lack of transparency about the allocation of federal dollars.
The most disturbing aspect of the covid disaster for schools and children is that the disparate outcomes are not exactly failures. Schools in the United States are funded in a way specifically designed to ensure disparate outcomes and to maintain generational advantages in resources, education and power. The fact that certain communities were harder hit by covid is in line with our current educational vision, which is meant to ensure that wealthy white students prosper and thrive at the expense of their less privileged peers.
A country that sees education as a zero-sum game is a country that is ill-equipped to respond with civic responsibility and wisdom to a public health emergency.
Nor can you build a strong democratic public when everything about children’s engagement with public life tells them that some people deserve support, care and knowledge, and some do not.
Covid has shown how badly our education system harms our republic when it enshrines in law that some kids are more valuable than others.
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