Co-authored by Lauren Jacobs, a Senior Consultant at the Partnership for the Future of Learning.
In 1967, Elvis Presley released “Run On,” his version of the old folk song, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” Recorded years earlier by Civil Rights activist, singer and songwriter Odetta, the song cautions:
Well you may throw your rock and hide your hand
Workin' in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What's down in the dark will be brought to the light.
Right now, nowhere is that point more poignant than the fault lines in our public, private, and economic systems that are being vividly exposed during this pandemic. Whether looking at the disproportionate impact coronavirus has had on Black, brown, and Indigenous communities, or the number of children who depend on school for meals and stability, this virus has shed light on the inequities and inequality that have long existed in our country.
But as with any revelation, we have an opportunity to redress and reset the course, and put ourselves on a path that is just, equitable, and holds us collectively accountable to the promise of our society’s democratic ideals. One place we can work together to account for the harms of the past and ensure a positive future is our public education system. We need to encourage states to make strong, solid investments in this bedrock of our nation.
Schools Are More Than Containers for Learning
Just as this pandemic has shown the ways in which many of our current social and political systems are not working, it has revealed to us that schools are first responders to communities; they are innovation hubs for learning; and they are our children’s first experiences with being members of a democratic society.
Schools are not simply containers for learning. School is where relationships are formed and where a sense of the collective, greater good is established. Leaders must protect, affirm and invest in that institution.
It took a global pandemic to see how disinvestment in public health agencies affects us all. Public education is headed in the same direction. We must re-invest in public health, and also in public education, to see ourselves back to a healthy economy and society.
We can do that if we:
Raise revenues to meet students’ needs. Over time, state revenue systems have relied more and more on taxes paid by families without big bank accounts. States need to take a more balanced approach, with corporations and the most wealthy paying their share. Without enough funding coming in, state budget making is an exercise in robbing Peter to pay Paul, as schools are forced to compete for funds with public health systems and other essential public services, with children facing the consequences of there never being enough for all.
Target state and federal dollars to districts serving the students most in need. Half of the education funding—in some states, more than half—comes from local property taxes, with the result that high-wealth districts can spend more on each student than low-wealth districts. State funding is vital to counteracting that inequity. Some states, such as California, Minnesota, and Massachusetts, use “weighted” formulas that direct more funds to districts serving students living in poverty, English Learners, and foster children, for example. All state and federal K-12 education funds should flow through equitable formulas.
Bring students and communities into district and school budget discussions. Budgets reflect priorities. The question is, whose priorities are we investing in—those of test and textbook companies, or those of students, families and other community stakeholders?
As evidenced by the ongoing racial justice protests and the broader response to the coronavirus pandemic, this precarious time has brought forth a sense of hope, of interconnectedness, and resilience—locally, nationally, and globally. We see it in naming healthcare workers and teachers heroes, in the mutual aid funds created to help workers in the hospitality industry. And as it relates to education, we see it in schools and communities working together to ensure students are still fed during the closure.
As we celebrate bright spots of humanity, we are also collectively acknowledging and processing loss—of jobs, of stability, of normalcy, and of course, life. That processing will continue on, and schools will play a significant role—if they have the resources to do so. Policy changes are needed to support people-led movements of interdependence. But we, collectively, also play a role in advancing and advocating for the right policies to uplift in this moment. Let investment in public education be one of them.