In New York City, the nation's largest school district, teachers and students of color say they don't feel safe returning to school. Many of their schools lack windows that open, an ample supply of soap, masks or working ventilation systems — making it nearly impossible to navigate live classes in the middle of a pandemic.
An hour’s drive from the U.S. Capitol, about 27,000 Baltimore city school children — 1 in 3 students — do not have computers vital for virtual school. Thousands lack reliable wireless internet access.
And in Salinas, Calif., a photo of two elementary school girls huddled over their laptops and using free Wi-Fi outside a Taco Bell went viral last month, raising alarms in this majority Latino city and seizing the attention of public officials.
“This is California, home to Silicon Valley … but where the digital divide is as deep as ever,” tweeted Kevin de León, a Democratic member-elect of the Los Angeles City Council and former president pro tem of the California Senate.
Yet in wealthy neighborhoods across the country, some students are safely continuing their education via small “learning pods,” where some affluent parents shell out hundreds or even thousands of dollars for private instruction. It’s driving concerns that wealthier kids, many of whom live in predominantly white neighborhoods, are getting an unfair advantage.
The split is emblematic of a core truth of the American public education system: Gaps in access to school resources fall along racial and socioeconomic lines, and that gap has been magnified during virtual schooling. Majority nonwhite school districts receive an average of $23 billion less than predominantly white school districts, despite serving roughly the same number of students, according to a 2019 study from EdBuild, a school funding research group that closed in June.
This translates to more than $2,200 less spent on each nonwhite student than on each white student per year. It solidifies a pattern of systematic disenfranchisement from the moment children begin grade school — setting these students up for a much harder life.
Unequal funding at the state and local levels maintain well-resourced schools in mostly white neighborhoods while those serving mostly Black, Latino and low-income white students struggle to finance basic supplies. And while not all low-income schools are predominantly Black or Latino, students of color are overrepresented in underserved school populations.
The spread of the coronavirus has unearthed and amplified these inequities.
One in three Black, Latino or American Indian/Alaska Native families, for example, do not have high-speed home internet and are more likely than their white peers to be disconnected from online learning, a recent analysis shows.
“Those who are at the bottom of the achievement gap are much worse off because of Covid-19 and distance learning,” said Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, “and the achievement gap is exacerbated.”
While many on the left say the inequities magnified by the virus have their roots in school segregation and systemic racism, the Trump administration points to school choice as a solution.
“The pandemic is exacerbating something Secretary [Betsy] DeVos has been pointing out for 30 years: Those who can afford to do so leave schools that aren’t meeting their needs, and those who can’t afford to do so have no options,” said Angela Morabito, a spokesperson for the Department of Education. “Righting that wrong is the core premise of school choice, and why President Trump and Secretary DeVos so strongly believe the money should follow the student.”
The pandemic has exposed long-standing disparities that aren’t directly linked to teaching, too.
Many schools serving low-income Black and Latino students don’t even have windows that open to increase air circulation, something the CDC recommends for keeping schools safe, said Cornell University professor Noliwe Rooks, the author of “Cutting School: The Segronomics of American Education.”
"Covid isn't just revealing racial inequities," Rooks said. "It's reproducing it. It's making it worse."
Most money for public schools — about 93 percent on average — comes from state and local taxes, and local property taxes are the largest single source of revenue, said Michael Griffith, a school finance expert at the Learning Policy Institute. So lower-income districts with fewer local resources tend to be more reliant on revenue from state income and sales taxes, which are less stable than property taxes during an economic crisis.
That leads to a pattern in which the gap between wealthy and poor districts narrows during “good times and then opens back up again, during the next recession,” Griffith said.
“What we saw in the recession of the early '80s, '90s and during the Great Recession, is a separation of the haves and have-nots,” he said. “The wealthy districts that are more reliant on local funding do OK and weather the storm. It's the places that are lower income, in poorer areas, that take a greater hit.”
Congress sought to help level the playing field in 1965 with the Title I program that provides funding to predominantly low-income schools. It allows the federal government to kick in additional money above each state’s base spending for every kid eligible for additional assistance. More than a half century later, the federal government sends schools $16 billion a year through Title I grants — but still falls billions of dollars short of the 40 percent max allowed under the law.
The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools found in a 2018 study that Title I was underfunded by $347 billion between 2005 and 2017. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden says he wants to triple funding for Title I schools.
“For too long, Congress has fallen short on its promise to fully invest in our students and our schools,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who has been working to boost Title I funding since 2002. “This severe lack of funding has resulted in educational disparities across our country that have only been exacerbated by this pandemic.”
Some states will respond to coronavirus-induced revenue losses by nixing funding for a specific program or reducing payments across the board, which hurts low-income districts more reliant on that funding, Griffith said.
In May, Ohio tried to steer the cuts away from low-wealth areas and toward higher-wealth areas in the state that could make up the difference with local funding. Other states are holding off and hoping the economy improves. If it doesn’t, Griffith said, state legislatures may start special sessions as early as November to make cuts.
“The least wealthy communities are the most dependent on state money,” said Rebecca Sibilia, former director of EdBuild. This practice, she explained, has a dire effect on low-income schools as state budgets decrease in response to economic downturns. “That is the most volatile way to fund schools.”
When the image of the Salinas girls surfaced, their school quickly got them a wireless hot spot they could use for internet access, and the girls have been attending their virtual classes, said Rebeca Andrade, superintendent of the Salinas City Elementary School District, where 91 percent of students are Latino and more than 40 percent are homeless.
Hot spots had been available but school officials weren’t aware that the girls needed one, Andrade said. The district has distributed them to 41 percent of its student population and has provided all students with Chromebooks. The photo of the girls prompted a local discussion about parent engagement and connectivity issues, she said, adding that legislation must address the digital divide.
“We should not be having our students go through this type of inequity in education,” Andrade said. “It's a conversation about not just one student. It's something that is happening across our nation.”
States attempt to fix the problem — with mixed results
New Jersey’s School Funding Reform Act, a program initiated in 2008 that assigns a “weight” or value to every student in a district based on their various needs, was meant to be a shining example of what school funding equity could be. And despite some flaws in the system and the failure of the state to ever really fully fund the law, it worked.
To an extent.
The state has come up nearly $2 billion short per year. The Great Recession and former Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s administration both led to deep education spending cuts. And the pandemic is likely to further undo a lot of the gains the state made for generations to come.
“The finish line just keeps getting further away and harder to reach,” said Danielle Farrie, research director at the Newark-based Education Law Center.
In Florida, schools in nearly every county are open for in-person classes. In March, as the virus became a full-blown crisis, the state cut annual education funding for technology upgrades. That’s after scaling back a fund last year that schools use to pay for laptops and tablets and other technology resources such as broadband internet. The loss of funding, which is based on the number of students enrolled in a county, hit rural school districts especially hard.
Polk County, a central Florida school district where nearly half of its children are from low-income families, has about one computer for every three students, according to Stephanie Yocum, president of the Polk Education Association, the local teachers union.
To meet distance learning needs during the pandemic, district leaders “gutted” technology on campuses to come up with devices to lend out — sending home any equipment already on hand, from laptops to desktop computers. But that left students who are taking in-person classes, many who are in brick-and-mortar schools because their parents can’t afford to miss work, at a disadvantage, Yocum said.
In California, teachers unions say Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s path for reopening elementary schools — allowing waivers for those that can prove they have a plan for social distancing and sanitation — gives an unfair edge to wealthier families.
More than 90 percent of the 500-plus waivers that had been approved by local and state health officials as of this week have gone to private and religious schools, where tuition is out of reach for many families. Meanwhile, the 19 public school districts that have been approved to reopen in California are whiter and wealthier than most of the state's schools, according to a POLITICO analysis of state data.
"The prospects for a school’s reopening are closely tied to the resources it is able to muster," the Public Policy Institute of California said in a report Wednesday. "So there is widespread concern that students in disadvantaged communities may be left behind."
Meanwhile, New York state faces a $62 billion loss in revenue over the next four years because of the health crisis. A big chunk of the state dollars set aside for education is doled out in September.
But Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo caught heat for initially withholding 20 percent of that money — $300 million — this year even if it’s only temporary until federal aid plugs the hole. The state teachers union sued to block the move. The loss would have hit less-wealthy districts the hardest, because some are entirely dependent on state dollars to pay for public schooling.
Lack of funding aside, in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio has said in-person classes are especially important for low-income, Black and Latino students, some school buildings are simply not equipped for all of the new safety measures needed to host classes during a pandemic.
Several schools in the Bronx don’t have working ventilation systems, said Dermott Myrie, a teacher at M.S. 391. In District 10, where his school is located, students are primarily Black and Latino.
"My school is just ... part of a pie,” Myrie said. “It's just a segment of the same thing. Systems don't work.
“We should get more funding here, more staff, more school counselors."
Congress gets into the act, but partisan bickering stalls progress
In March, Congress attempted to shore up K-12 schools with more than $13.2 billion in emergency funds under the CARES Act, H.R. 748 (116), to support distance learning and health and safety measures.
But since then, partisan differences have stalled major, dedicated action in Congress to address the digital divide. Some Democrats are calling for emergency funding through an existing education technology program, while Republicans and FCC Chair Ajit Pai argue a pilot program would get the money out faster.
In the meantime, students who are still attending classes remotely but lack internet at home struggle to find connections anywhere they are available, from school parking lots to fast food restaurants, like the girls in Salinas. And districts in states including South Carolina, Kansas, Alabama and Wisconsin are parking Wi-Fi-equipped school buses in communities to help kids connect in neighborhoods with limited internet access.
Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, has been lobbying for reliable home internet connections for students for years, but he said, few incentives exist to fix the rural broadband issue. According to a 2015 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, one-fourth of the rural students without adequate internet live below the poverty line. Native American students are most likely to live in rural areas without internet connections.
“It's not been a priority until now,” he said. “So maybe coming out of this, priorities are going to change.”
Schools that have struck out on their own have found the most success. Yolonda Body, an eighth grade teacher in rural Maryland, said her district has been able to adjust to online learning “by tapping into whatever available resources the county has, in spite of the president's threat to take away funding to schools who don't return back.”
These include Chromebook computers for the more than 1,500 students at her school, which is predominantly Black and Latino.
“Giving them multiple opportunities to learn helps us to close that achievement gap, that we could probably do a little faster if we were in their faces,” Body explained. “But even extending that time when they're out of our faces gives them the confidence to keep coming back every day, to keep asking questions and advocating for themselves and allows them to feel like they have ownership in the work that they have to do.”
Experts like Pratt are concerned that, as students continue to attend remote learning without the proper resources, participation rates will fall, resulting in wider achievement gaps and a large population of under prepared students in the long run. Educators in school districts across the country have already reported lower attendance as a result of lack of internet connectivity and inadequate equipment.
“This connectivity issue is not only for schools, it's also a driving force of the economic development, health care, and all aspects that touch those rural communities,” Pratt said.
“So it's not saving one part of the community, it’s saving the entire community.”
Andrew Atterbury, Mackenzie Mays, Carly Sitrin and Madina Touré contributed to this report.
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