By Lindsay Sobel
At the start of the pandemic, Jackson, Mississippi teacher Allen Baugh’s school announced they would hand out devices to families who didn’t have them at home. The line of cars circled the school three times ― and when the school ran out, the remaining kids had only paperwork packets for months. Andrea Thomas, who teaches on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, said many of her students couldn’t receive remote instruction because they don’t have electricity or running water and live in fear of leaving their homes as the pandemic rips through their community. Kayla Scholl in Everett, Massachusetts and Elizabeth Villanueva in Sacramento, California shared profound worries that emergent bilingual students from Mexico to Morocco are losing ground in their efforts to learn in English without days full of teacher and student voices. So it was with a heart rubbed raw with teacher stories, and determination to fix the gaping disparities that grew far worse this year, that I logged in for a meeting with the Biden-Harris Transition Team and other education organizations last month. Here’s what I told them:
Amongst the six key priorities in our Federal Policy Agenda, one is most urgent: finance equity. While this pandemic has been devastating for everyone, those who have been hardest hit ― by far ― are students of color, who already attended schools receiving $1,800 less per child in state and local funding than their peers at predominantly white schools before the pandemic. Without a significant infusion of funds for the highest need schools ― and ironclad protections to ensure that high poverty schools and schools serving students of color don’t bear the brunt of state funding cuts ― the disparities in our education system will get far worse. The recent stimulus package is an important step, but it is nowhere near enough to meet short- and long-term needs.
No one in education has a closer connection to students and families than teachers ― especially during the pandemic. Teach Plus teacher leaders have delivered care packages to families, secured laptop donations, donned masks and gloves to set up their students’ home computers, and led car parades past children’s houses. They have intervened in mental health crises, launched math dance party YouTube channels, and invited CEOs to join their economics classes on Zoom. In between, they sterilized their classrooms again and provided tech support in multiple languages. Teachers’ resilience has been remarkable, but brilliance and resilience won’t block the effects of teacher layoffs, dying technology, and loss of counselors, interventionists, and mentors for new teachers that recent history tells us are coming without bold intervention.
I was glad the Biden-Harris transition team kept digging deeper: What can the Administration do in the first 100 days? Which specific policies will make the biggest difference…and could we please send them even more proposals, more detail? How can the U.S. Department of Education consistently hear more from the teachers and students over the next four years?
Here are some of the details Teach Plus proposed:
+ Pass additional stimulus funds that bring us to a total of $175 billion for the Education Stabilization Fund and $50 billion to support early learning and childcare.
+ Ensure that new funding comes with three important strings attached: States and districts must maintain education’s slice of the state funding pie, ensure that any necessary cuts do not disproportionately impact high-poverty schools, and protect low-income schools from layoffs.
+ Fulfill President-Elect Biden’s proposal to triple Title I funding and provide that increase with a requirement that states update their funding formulas to support equity.
Like all virtual meetings, there were plenty of “You’re on mutes” and “Can you hear me? I’ll dial ins” during that meeting with the transition team. But in the end, I felt that our teachers’ and students’ stories were being heard. Now it’s up to all of us to make sure we act with purpose to repair the damage of a terrible year. As Teach Plus Board Member and Chicago Public Schools teacher Ashley McCall wrote in Chicago Unheard, “What if we refused to return to normal?” What if we did it right this time? Allen, Andrea, and Kayla’s students―all of our students―are counting on us to do it right, not just this time but into the future.
Lindsay Sobel is Vice President of Policy and External Affairs at Teach Plus.