The purpose of public education is to ensure a common foundation of knowledge and skills for all Americans, regardless of their background, neighborhood, or socio-economic status. While we, as a society, have fallen short of this ideal for a very long time – many would argue that we have never actually realized it – few things bring to light just how far we are from providing our children with an equitable, functional education system like a major public health emergency.
As school districts across the country attempt to continue serving students and families during the COVID-19 crisis, district leaders find themselves not only taking on the task of finding new ways to facilitate teaching and learning but also managing logistics for food distribution, counseling, and a number of other social services. While schools have always been a primary gathering place within communities, this global pandemic has revealed that we have allowed schools to bear an outsized share of our collective obligation to meet the basic needs of millions of children. The cuts in state funding to public education were damaging enough within the normal educational context, but in a time when educators are charged with reaching families from a safe distance, the lack of funding, foresight, and infrastructure – not just in the education system but in many parts of the social safety net – is disturbing.
Although the current strain is evident in areas other than public education, few segments of society will suffer the long-term consequences that under-served and marginalized children will. As the system struggles to meet the basic needs of food, shelter, and healthcare, things like instruction and learning are put on the back burner. And while this is a necessary shift in mindset for the time being, the longer-term ramifications will inevitably lead to even wider gaps in achievement and opportunity for years to come.
As the nation begins to forge a pathway forward after the peak of the global pandemic, we must make sure that public education is not just functionally better, but that it is well-resourced and only one part of a robust support system which reflects our deeply-held desire to provide all children with the foundation they need to thrive.