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The pandemic’s devastating effects on communities of color and low- and middle-wage families have been mirrored in California’s schools. Long-standing racial, economic and linguistic disparities have been exposed and amplified, ratcheting up the urgency many education stakeholders feel to invest more and to invest differently in schools.
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Before the pandemic abruptly changed schooling, California had worked for years to implement progressive policies aimed at eradicating long-standing educational inequities. In 2013, the state overhauled the way it divvied up funding among school districts, shifting greater resources to communities serving more low-income students, English learners and students in foster care. Shortly thereafter, the state discarded its old regime of test-based accountability in favor of one that encouraged improvement across a range of indicators, like school climate and parent engagement. It continues to implement a new set of rigorous math, reading and science standards designed to prepare all students for college and careers. In 2016, voters ended 18-years of English-only instruction, paving the way for California’s 1.3 million English learners to receive instruction in both English and their home languages.
However, despite these reforms, California’s most vulnerable students — those who are low-income, unhoused, undocumented or in foster care, as well as English learners and Black, Latino, Native and Pacific Islander students, continue to be underserved by our school system and regularly perform below state goals. Many students, parent organizers and social justice advocates point out that deeper, structural changes are needed. “Real improvement must start with building equity and a lens that looks at race in everything we do in schools, from assessment about needs to decision-making to instruction,” writes the California Partnership for the Future of Learning, a statewide alliance of community organizing and advocacy groups.
Additionally, California schools were underfunded before the current recession started. When adjusted for cost of living, California spends more than $2,000 per pupil below the national average. Between its low and inequitable outcomes and chronic underfunding, California education was already in a vulnerable place before the pandemic hit.
The pandemic’s devastating toll on schools and students
COVID-19 has been devastating to schools — both as institutions that depend on public dollars and on the students and families they serve.
Educators and school administrators have been forced to confront a huge range of student, family and community needs. California has the highest poverty rate in the nation when accounting for the cost of living, which means that many children lived in households facing food, housing, and job insecurity even before the virus. Those challenges, along with physical and mental health needs, have been amplified by the pandemic. This is especially true for Black and Latino families who have been disproportionately affected by coronavirus cases and deaths, unemployment and other financial hardships.
In addition, hundreds of thousands of students still lack internet access and many struggle to find a quiet, appropriate space to work at home — both essential for distance learning. Further, children in low-income families are less likely to have parents with jobs that allow them to work from home or who can afford tutors or other supplemental supports, and their childcare arrangements have more often been disrupted. For these reasons and others, low-income children, English learners, students with disabilities, and Black students have been less able to consistently and fully participate in distance learning.
During school closures, districts have devoted significant attention and resources to addressing basic student needs, developing meal distribution programs and even setting up new broadband services to provide communities with internet connectivity. Some have created learning centers to provide the youngest and most vulnerable students with in-person support. Many are providing expanded counseling and mental health services to address mounting cases of young people experiencing anxiety, depression, domestic violence and other traumas.
Although some districts have begun to reopen for some learners, the reality is that the majority of California students are still participating in school via distance learning. Parents are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with this mode of education, with fully 75% in one poll saying that it is worse than in-class learning. Parents, especially those with lower incomes, report that they struggle to keep their children motivated and engaged and say their children do not receive enough instructional time. Researchers estimate that the pandemic is leading to significant learning loss, especially for the most vulnerable students.
Education costs are up, but revenues are down
Addressing these needs is costly. In addition to investing in devices, connectivity, online curriculum and staff training for distance learning, districts are also preparing for a safe return to school by hiring additional custodians and nurses, purchasing supplies like thermometers, PPE and disinfectant, and upgrading HVAC systems to ensure proper airflow. One organization estimates that the price tag for reopening an average-sized school district is $1.8 million. That’s in addition to the increased costs that will come with addressing students’ expanded academic and social-emotional needs.
Yet while costs are rising, education revenues are heading in the opposite direction. With the economy in decline and unemployment at record high levels, California revenues could decline 16 to 21% in 2020–21.
The economic contraction will hit schools especially hard since school revenues tend to be more volatile than the overall economy. The reason: school funding draws significantly upon personal income taxes, especially the earnings of top-income earners who invest heavily in the stock market. It was not always this way. Before voters approved Proposition 13 in 1978, school funding was more stable and less reliant on volatile state funds. Prop 13 capped property tax rates at 1%, limited the growth of assessed values to 2% annually and made it harder for communities to pass local taxes. The result was an immediate and dramatic decline in revenues for schools and communities in Prop 13’s aftermath.
Is Proposition 15 one piece of the broader solution?
Although California has improved school funding in recent years, the state’s high cost of living means that dollars do not go as far here as in other states. California ranks at or near the bottom nationally when it comes to the number of students per teacher, guidance counselor or librarian. Addressing the disparities that existed before the pandemic was already going to cost more, and COVID-19 has undoubtedly made things worse.
New revenues are needed, say experts and advocates, and many are eyeing Proposition 15 as a step in that direction. The initiative would make changes to Prop 13, pegging taxes on commercial and industrial properties to current market value. Because Prop 15 would “split the roll,” residential properties would be unaffected. If passed, the measure is expected to generate up to $12 billion, and 40% of that would go to schools and community colleges. Leading economists, including Jesse Rothstein, Professor of Public Policy and Economics at the University of California, Berkeley say it would also “improve California’s economy over the long term” by broadening the tax base and eliminating “economic distortions that hurt competition and growth.”
Unfortunately, any dollars generated by Prop 15 would not arrive fast enough to address the most immediate challenges posed by COVID-19, although the impact of the pandemic will last for years to come. To address schools’ real-time needs, additional revenues are critical. These resources could be partly realized if Congressional leaders, who have been deadlocked for months around a stimulus deal, manage to agree on a federal aid package including relief for schools. Until then, California state leaders are instituting budget cuts that will affect schools and other critical services.
Social justice activists and parent and student organizers are among the loudest advocates for more school funding, but even they caution that funding on its own cannot fix inequities if those dollars flow into an inherently inequitable system. Recent activism has centered on requiring ethnic studies courses, diversifying the teacher workforce, reinstating affirmative action (Proposition 16 on this year’s ballot) and replacing suspensions and expulsions with positive behavior intervention practices. Youth-empowerment organization Californians for Justice maintains that supporting educators and investing in positive adult-to-student relationships will “break down cycles of racial bias and inequity in our schools,” and parent-engagement network Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE) insists that parents must have “culturally and linguistically competent resources to support their student’s learning.”
Regardless of whether or not Prop 15 passes, it is clear that if Californians want a bright future for their children and youth, they will need to invest more in schools. Policymakers, school administrators, parents, and educators will also need to collectively structure those investments in ways that expand opportunity for all.
Top Image: Westport Heights Elementary School's sign that says "School will be closed starting Monday, 3/16." | Karen Foshay