Across the United States, students still don't have the same educational opportunities. Widespread teacher shortages impact high-poverty schools the most. Schools with high numbers of students of color are far less likely to offer advanced math and science classes. And Black and Latino children have little access to high-quality preschool programs, a key ingredient for a child's long-term success.
And all of those disparities were happening long before COVID-19. Now, gaps are only widening. Teacher shortages are worse. Without internet access and support, many students in low-income and rural areas had trouble accessing the most basic remote instruction, let alone calculus and physics. And preschool enrollment for Black, Hispanic, and low-income students plummeted.
"We've had significant inequities in our education system with long-term impacts on our kids and adults for a very long time," says Maureen Tracey-Mooney, special assistant for education to President Joe Biden. "What we're seeing now, as a result of the pandemic, is that those disparities are being exacerbated."
Proposal for Sweeping Change
While COVID underscored the long-standing disparities for children across the United States, it also triggered an appetite for change. The American Rescue Plan, which the House and Senate passed in March 2021, helped make schools safe for students' return during COVID and funded summer learning programs, nurses, and counselors.
As students returned to classrooms this fall, Biden's Build Back Better Agenda called for additional initiatives to close the gap in educational opportunities for U.S. children. "This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to really finally make the types of investments that we all know are needed," says Tracey-Mooney.
But Biden's plan is hardly a done deal. In a deeply divided Congress, high-dollar initiatives such as universal preschool, which is part of Biden's agenda, raise eyebrows. After Biden announced his proposal for free preschool in the spring, Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn tweeted, "You know who likes universal day care," and shared an article about daycare in 1970s-era Soviet Union. Others have suggested that states might do a better job running their own programs.
Education experts who have studied the ramifications of school inequities, however, say the proposals could make sweeping differences for students if they can get funded.
"We've had the research evidence for the importance of some of the things they're proposing now for a long time," says Leslie M. Babinski, Ph.D., director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University. "This plan really does have the potential to be transformational."
The plan is wide-ranging, covering everything from increased support for children with disabilities to efforts to resolve the $23 billion annual funding gap between mostly white and mostly non-white schools.
3 Initiatives That Could Have a Big Impact
1. Universal Preschool and Affordable Child Care
Biden's plan would create free preschool for all 3 and 4-year-olds and make high-quality child care affordable for low- and middle-income families. Halley Potter, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, says the passage of both proposals would be a game-changer for families.
Studies show that high-quality child care and preschool programs lead to life-long gains for kids. Children who attend well-run programs are more likely to go to college, own a home, and lead healthier lives. Yet research shows that half of U.S. neighborhoods have too few affordable, licensed child care options. Among the low-income families who qualify for federal child care subsidies, only 14 percent receive it because of funding gaps.
"We have so much research that shows that the early years are pivotal in terms of a time when children's brains are growing and they're developing at a rapid pace," says Potter. "But it's where we have the least amount of public funding to support families and support children."
2. Infrastructure Improvements
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, America's public school buildings earn a D for poor conditions. Dilapidated schools and trailers are more likely to serve children of color, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And studies show that students in deteriorating school buildings have lower academic performance. Biden's plan would put money behind infrastructure improvements.
"It's just shocking the difference in school buildings and how some are beautiful and welcoming and clean, and others are just in a state of disrepair," says Babinski. "That investment in that building and infrastructure … is another thing that really should have happened decades ago."
3. Teacher Support and Training
Access to certified, experienced teachers is critical to closing achievement gaps between white students and their classmates of color, according to the Learning Policy Institute. Yet teachers in schools with a large portion of students of color are more likely to be uncertified and inexperienced. And while studies show that students of color, who make up more than 50 percent of the U.S. school population, benefit from having teachers of color in the classroom, some 80 percent of U.S. teachers are white.
The Biden administration plan puts money behind efforts to train, mentor, and retain teachers and ensure their ranks are more diverse. It would fund better pay for teachers in high-poverty Title I schools. It also would support teacher training programs at historically Black colleges and universities and Grow Your Own strategies that recruit people to teach within their own communities. "Our teachers should reflect the students in our community and, at this point, this is not true," says Babinski.
When Might We See These Changes?
Now, it's up to the politicians. In the fall, lawmakers will consider these proposals, which are primarily funded via a $3.5 trillion bill that the Senate began moving forward in August. What happens next is anyone's guess. "We're still in a very politically divided moment in this country," says Potter.
But she's optimistic. The pandemic demonstrated the critical role that schools play—educating kids, supporting working families, and providing other essential services, she says. "If there was ever a time that we could get all of the political pieces in line, I hope that is now."
Parents.com is investigating inequities in education. To read more on how the pandemic exposed failures in the education system and how parents and educators can be part of the solution, visit: The Children Left Behind.