Mar 15, 2021 - Politics & Policy

America's unequal return to classrooms

Illustration of a dollar made out of chalk on a chalkboard being erased
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Most American kids have returned to some form of in-person school by now — but low-income school districts are paying a higher price for it.

The big picture: Preparing for testing, infrastructure improvements and distancing has cost school districts tens of millions of dollars. And poorer districts have had to freeze hiring and cut entire programs to make it work.

  • "Whenever you have an event like the pandemic, poor communities always get hit first, they always get hit the hardest, and the impact always lasts the longest,” Arne Duncan, former education secretary under Barack Obama, told Axios.

What's happening: To reopen safely, education officials say, schools need to be able to pay for measures like COVID testing, masks, new ventilation systems and additional staff and space to reduce class sizes and keep students safely apart.

  • And while federal aid has helped, schools still have to make sacrifices and shoulder unexpected costs. It's often worse in smaller, more rural districts, and in long underfunded urban districts.

"It’s been a combination of belt tightening and hard decisions,” says Christopher Doherty, the chief financial officer of Baltimore City Public Schools. “I don’t see how any districts can find the money without finding other costs to cut."

Details: In Goreville, Illinois, restrictions on the number of kids on buses became a big problem because rural school bus routes are so long and adding more buses was too expensive.

  • Thankfully, enough parents volunteered to drive kids to school so bus routes could stay the same, superintendent Steve Webb tells Axios.
  • Winchendon, Massachusetts cut eight instructors who taught elective courses to make room in its budget for COVID safety measures, like storing excess furniture to allow for social distancing and updating air conditioning systems, USA Today's Suzanne Hirt writes.
  • Baltimore has frozen hiring and spending since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Concerns about equity are very real,” says Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a coalition of state and local education leaders.

  • In urban — and often disadvantaged — school districts across the U.S., the effects of chronic underfunding are potentially making the costs of reopening higher, he says.
  • “The people who have been able to get kids back more easily are private schools or charter schools," giving an advantage to wealthy families. says Margaret Spellings, former education secretary under George W. Bush.
  • And many schools are using a hybrid of remote and in-person learning, which can exacerbate inequality because remote instruction has proven inferior to in-person instruction.

What to watch: There's a lot of money on the way. President Biden's coronavirus relief package includes nearly $130 billion to help schools reopen, on top of the $13.2 billion in the original CARES Act and $54.3 billion in December's COVID relief bill.

  • School districts are supposed to use 20% of the money in the new bill to address learning loss, through measures like summer learning, longer school days and extended school years.
  • Districts will receive money according to their Title I share, so funds are weighted towards districts with large numbers of low-income students. The bill also sets aside $30 billion to address learning loss among students disproportionately hurt by the pandemic, such as kids of color and English learners, a senior Biden administration official tells Axios.

But, but, but: Some damage has already been done. The last year of interrupted and remote school could cost the U.S. economy up to $28 trillion because of all the learning loss American kids have experienced.

  • This experience will affect kids for years to come, Spellings said. Duncan said a national tutoring initiative may be needed to help them catch up.
  • "It’s not just the academic loss — it’s the social/emotional impact. None of us have ever lived through anything like this,” said Duncan. "Of course the most vulnerable kids — the ones who were already behind — will now be even farther behind.”

The bottom line: “I think the main takeaway is, it’s all over the place," Spellings tells Axios. "There is no best practice; there is no research; everyone is making it up as they go."

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