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Each day, we see signs that our country is coming back from the damage done by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment has fallen from its peak, and many schools have reopened. With the passage of the American Rescue Plan, more families can pay their rent and put food on the table.
But as a nation we still have a long way to go. While the pandemic affected everyone, some Americans are bearing a disproportionate share of its impact because of systemic inequities that long pre-date this crisis. Simply put, low-income families and families of color have been hit hardest.
We cannot simply aim for a return to last spring’s status quo. We must use this opportunity to address some of our nation’s most intractable and long-standing issues. This is especially true when it comes to providing educational opportunities that prepare all Americans for success.
We are co-chairs of a working group of state and local elected officials and policy experts sponsored by The NewDEAL Forum, which has spent the last year working on policies to better align the future of education with workforce opportunities, with support from the Alliance for Excellent Education. The group was forced to pivot to crisis response in the midst of the pandemic, but COVID-19 also underscored the vital importance of our original mission.
Adults with the lowest levels of education have faced the greatest and longest-lasting job losses. Since March 2020, the jobless rate for people with a bachelor’s degree has never gone above 8.4 percent, whereas for people with a high school degree but no college, that rate reached 17.3 percent.
This experience mirrors a historical trend. During the Great Recession, unemployment for people with a bachelor’s degree never exceeded 5 percent. For those with a high school diploma or less, the rate was more than double.
It is well documented that educational attainment can directly improve individuals’ work outcomes, whether in a crisis or not.
In Policy Proposals for Aligning the Future of Education with Workforce Opportunities, the forum’s Education Policy Group outlines steps needed to prepare more workers for high-skill, high-wage jobs — those that already exist and those on the horizon. With the influx of funds from the latest federal stimulus, there is a unique opportunity to address this challenge.
Our report recommends expanding access to high-quality college and career pathways. This means investing in preparing workers for growth industries within their own region. Simple steps like making labor market data available to schools, colleges and employers can be a good way to start.
We also recommend easing the transition between high school and higher education. American Rescue Plan funding could support training in careers identified by the state as high-need, high-wage jobs.
One good example comes from Oakland, California. There, through a partnership with the schools, community colleges and labor unions, a series of career academies prepare all students for high-skill jobs. They complete college-level coursework taught in a career-focused way (allowing students who might not want to take trigonometry, say, to develop an interest if they see how it applies to city planning.) Students in Oakland’s Linked Learning Health Pathways are 20 percentage points more likely to enroll in college than traditional high school students. At a time when the high school dropout rate is increasing again, career academies can motivate students to return to the classroom after a year of online learning — a year during which many students did not fully participate.
Rescue Plan money can also enable more students to complete some college classes while they are still in high school. Georgia has developed an extensive dual enrollment program, with Sen. Parent as a leading proponent. Students use the program, which pays for tuition and books, to enter college with as much as a year’s worth of credit. Some students even graduate high school with an associate degree.
Getting an early start on postsecondary education is critical for low-income students. Over the past two decades, only about half of high school graduates from low-income households have consistently enrolled in college. That compares with four in five students from high-income households.
During the COVID recession, college enrollment has dropped off significantly, with the steepest declines among students of color — 18.7 percent among Black students and 19.9 percent among Hispanic students.
It is critical to ensure that programs like dual enrollment serve all students. Sen. Parent has been a leader in moving Georgia to collect and analyze data on disparities.
While preparing students for careers, we must also address learning loss that has affected nearly every student. Those who were behind last spring will be even further behind next fall, and it is the most vulnerable children — low-income kids, those who are English learners and those with disabilities — who have suffered the greatest learning losses.
The national research and assessment organization NWEA estimates that some students may lose as much as a full year of learning. As is so often true, students of color will fare worse. One study estimates that while white students, on average, will lose four to eight months of learning, students of color could be 6 to 12 months behind when schools reopen next fall.
Cities and states must move aggressively to respond. In Montgomery, Alabama, several robust summer learning programs seek to support students who suffered most from virtual learning. Montgomery Public Schools will offer a host of classes at many schools, and to complement these options, Mayor Reed’s office is collaborating with community partners to offer a six-week academic enrichment program in city community centers. There, a culturally relevant, rigorous curriculum will help elementary school students make up for academic losses. They will combine the fun of camp with high-quality instruction, and this model has proven results.
And when students return to school in the fall, they will need additional support. We welcome the requirement that at least 20 percent of rescue plan funding be devoted to helping students close learning gaps. State and local policymakers must work collaboratively with schools to provide the community support needed.
The COVID shutdown revealed another tough truth: Many students lack computers and reliable internet. Data collected by the alliance and national civil rights organizations found what we all might have expected — students of color and children in low-income families were the least likely to have both the computer and the access to high-speed internet necessary to participate in digital activities.
Fortunately, funding from the rescue plan and previous federal legislation offers the opportunity to build out infrastructure where connectivity is not available and provide connected devices.
Our country will come together to recover from COVID, and with the leadership of state and local leaders, we can emerge from this difficult time providing better opportunities for our students. We will work with stakeholders in our communities to implement the recommendations outlined above. With American Rescue Plan funds available to support these types of initiatives, we hope our colleagues across the country join us in this effort.
Elena Parent is a Georgia state senator, representing Atlanta. Steven L. Reed is mayor of Montgomery, Alabama. They co-chair the NewDEAL Forum Education Policy Group.