Addressing Learning Gaps and Leading with Equity

The state must set a path forward for education during COVID-19

By Samantha Tran

May 4, 2020

The world is experiencing a crisis that is reshaping all our lives. In addition to the frightening health threat itself, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended many of our social structures, including schools being closed while educators scramble to develop and deliver distance learning at an unprecedented scale.

This crisis is having devastating effects on children who already lacked sufficient, equitable supports – particularly children of color, children living in poverty and kids facing federal immigration threats. Pre-existing inequities, including significant achievement gaps between students in meeting grade-level reading, math and science expectations, will be severely exacerbated as a result of this pandemic unless the state helps provide a path forward.

During the Great Recession, it was education, including early learning and higher education, that experienced the deepest cuts in our state budget. Students, educators and families had to weather drastic funding reductions that laid waste to the very programs and services kids need to be successful. Tens of thousands of children lost access to early learning and care programs, and schools cut access to tutoring, summer programs, the arts, library services and counseling. California schools lost approximately 27,000 teachers during that economic downturn and have still not fully recovered from those losses. As a result, California has the second highest student to teacher ratio in the country – educating 22.7 students per teacher compared to an average of 15.8 nationally. At our public colleges and universities, student fees increased and enrollment was restricted, leading to a rationing of higher education. In addition, key investments were deferred, leading to deteriorating facilities, growing pension debt and little to no access to staff professional development and support. These cuts often disproportionately impacted schools with the highest need students as a result of the funding sources that were targeted and contractual agreements in place regarding layoff procedures. We can’t allow this kind of devastation to happen again.

In response, Children Now is focusing our advocacy efforts on putting children, especially our most vulnerable children, at the heart of California’s policy and budget decisions.

In the area of education, we have identified and are advocating for the following key funding policy priorities:

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act – CARES Act – provides $30.75 billion for an Education Stabilization Fund, of which California should receive approximately $3.8 billion in education relief funding for K-12 and higher education. These funds are focused on providing a higher level of service and meeting the educational needs of California students in these extraordinary times. While this funding may seem significant, the needs of our schools and students are far greater. To put this into perspective, it would cost approximately $7 billion to backfill lost instructional time due to current school closures (e.g. the cost of providing a month of schooling).

“In response, Children Now is focusing our advocacy efforts on putting children, especially our most vulnerable children, at the heart of California’s policy and budget decisions.”

In making decisions around how to spend these funds, the state must lead with equity. In the near-term, the state can make rapid investments to have the greatest impact in addressing this crisis equitably, especially for students who need additional supports, such as students who are English learners, youth in foster care, students with disabilities, and students from low-income households. These include:

  • Additional technology, such as tablets and laptops, and mobile hotspots;
  • The curation of distance learning materials to ensure that only the highest-quality products are used;
  • Professional development on delivering distance learning and social-emotional supports; and
  • Ways to regain lost learning time.

In addition, the state must achieve equity-oriented funding policies now and as we emerge from this crisis. This would include:

  • Standing with the education community to ensure that we do not cut funding to early learning and care programs, schools and colleges. This includes calling on the federal government to provide more resources to keep education funding levels stable during this crisis. In addition to providing funding for the higher costs associated with instruction during this pandemic – cleaning schools, additional technology, etc. – the federal government should also provide a combination of general purpose funds and additional special education and Title I funding in at least the amounts provided during the Great Recession (around $6.1 billion for California). State and federal funds should be provided to ensure education systems do not have to pursue massive layoffs and cut essential programs for children and students.
  • Addressing the significant learning loss that is occurring across the state, including funding for additional learning time, specialized tools and resources for high-need student populations, resources and strategies for families to support their children during this difficult time, and access to diagnostic tools to inform individualized learning plans for students.
  • Ensuring there is a focus on the social-emotional wellbeing of students and acknowledging the potential for trauma compounded by this crisis by providing educators with tangible tools and professional development geared toward supporting young children, students and their families.
  • Ensuring that California does not back away from – and in fact advances – efforts to provide greater fiscal transparency, to ensure that vulnerable students receive the supports and services that they are entitled to and are paid for through the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).When a district’s fiscal challenges grow and it faces decisions on reductions, transparency is even more important to ensure that the cuts do not disproportionately impact students with the greatest need.

These are uncertain times for all of us and yet there is much work to be done to protect and support California’s children. We must ensure that all students, especially those facing inequities, emerge from this crisis with the educational supports and services they need to learn and thrive.