I am a public school teacher for many different reasons, one of which being my commitment to free, equitable, and quality education for all. Over the last few years, I have felt an unmistakable attack against the public school system in the United States. I can’t explain where that feeling has come from, but it feels like an undefinable evil pressing down around me when I think about the state of public education in America. There are those who would love nothing more than to see public schools dismantled because they pose a threat to those who are in power. Public education can be the great equalizer, providing opportunities for children who otherwise do not have access to enrichment and development of knowledge and skills necessary to progress successfully in our society.
Say what you will about conspiracy theories and what not. There is a clear attack in the United States against public schools and the educators who have committed their lives to the advancement of students around the nation. And now that attack has become even more volatile as schools are looking to “reopen” in August and September after being “closed” due to COVID-19.
First, we need to correct the misinformation that has been presented in the media. Schools never closed.
From March 17th until May 20th, educators in Culpeper County, Virginia continued to provide educational opportunities for their students. Teachers hosted lessons and discussions through Google Meet, sent out packets of activities for students with limited or no internet access, and sent out messages to students and parents, ensuring that everyone was doing ok. Paraprofessionals checked in on their students through email and phone calls, making sure that their students had the support they needed to continue their education. Special education case managers rewrote IEPs, making sure that each student had a specialized plan for their virtual education and made contact with their students regularly. Counselors emailed and called parents and students, making sure that they were accessing the materials they needed to continue the school year and providing counseling services if needed. Administrators continued to monitor student success in classrooms, observing lessons while teachers and students met online through various platforms. Food service workers continued to provide breakfast and lunch to the students every Monday through Friday. Custodians helped to pack up abandoned classrooms and did a deep cleaning of each of the schools, preparing for the return to in-person school. And countless others in the public school system did countless other things, crucial to schools continuing to provide free, equitable, quality education for all students.
This reality was not isolated to Culpeper, VA. Throughout the United States, educators and those who support students continued to work for the advancement of all students. Schools did not fail. Schools did not flounder. Schools continued to thrive, despite the obstacles thrown their way. And most importantly, schools did not “close.”
If schools did not close, then saying that they need to reopen is unnecessary. Along with that, saying that schools need to be fully operational in the fall is also unnecessary. Regardless of the way that the school year resumes this fall, schools will be fully operational. Whether all students are in the school building at a time or all students are learning virtually from home or in the community, schools will be fully operational. Educators and those who support learning will continue to work for the advancement of all students in the United States.
So if the issue is not whether schools need to reopen or whether schools need to be fully operational, what are the issues that public education faces today?
One of the major issues in public education in the United States today is that public schools continue to face defunding. This is a complicated issue that I do not completely understand, so I cannot begin to explain all of the intricacies of each public school’s budget or how money is allocated to each school division in the nation. However, I do know that schools were already facing budget deficiencies before COVID-19 caused in-person learning to cease for the school year. And now, schools are being held as financial hostages as the federal government has threatened to cut federal funding if schools do not “reopen” in the fall.
What does this look like for our most vulnerable students? This means that public schools may not have the resources necessary to resume in-person education safely such as personal protective equipment, cleaned and updated ventilation systems, access to nurses for health screenings, and simple supplies like hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes. The federal government has already worked to funnel money from the CARES Act to private and charter schools even though Congress intended for aid to go to schools most in need financially in resuming in-person education. Congress earmarked $13.2 billion in aid for students from low-income families in the CARES Act. However, the U.S. Department of Education has misinterpreted how that money is to be distributed and is “allow[ing] private schools to get funds based on their total student population, leading tens of millions of dollars to be diverted from public schools in the poorest districts to private institutions with tuition similar to that charged by private colleges” (Rodriguez and Eggert). All schools are not equal. Some schools will need more aid to provide the best resources so that students and staff can safely resume in-person education. However, the Secretary of Education has proven time and time again that she is more concerned with advancing private and charter schools than defending and supporting public education in the United States.
Sadly, the threat against funding for public education goes beyond the CARES Act. The federal government provides funding for the most vulnerable students in the United States through the Every Student Succeeds Act (formerly the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). ESSA provides funding for schools based on social-economic status of students through Title I funding. The federal government also provides funding for public schools through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which supports the education of students with disabilities. The federal government also provides funding for free school lunches through the U.S. Department of Agriculture for students from households with income at or below 130 percent poverty and reduced priced lunches for students from households with incomes between 130 and 185 percent poverty (“National School Lunch Program”).
So I wonder what funding the federal government will cut if schools do not “reopen” in the fall? Will the federal government cut funding for students in poverty, funding for students with disabilities, or funding for school lunches?
Again, the public education system in the United States is being put in jeopardy physically, economically, psychologically, and emotionally. And I wonder why? Why risk the lives and well-being of over 3.5 million public school teachers in the United States? Why risk the lives and well-being of millions of support personnel from public schools in the United States? Why risk the lives and well-being of millions of family members of educators and those who support education in the United States? And why risk the lives and well-being of millions of children and their families throughout the United States?
I’m still waiting for the answers, and I’m afraid the answers will come when it’s too late.
“National School Lunch Program.” United States Department of Agriculture, 20 Aug 2019. Electronically accessed at https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/child-nutrition-programs/national-school-lunch-program/#:~:text=Any%20student%20in%20a%20participating,below%20130%20percent%20of%20poverty, 13 Jul 2020.
Rodriguez, Olga R. and David Eggert. “States Sue Department of Education Over Pandemic Relief Funds Being Diverted to Private Schools.” Time, Time USA, 7 July 2020. Electronically accessed at https://time.com/5863903/department-of-education-lawsuit-coronavirus-relief-funds/, 13 Jul 2020.
Cohen, Seth. “Betsy DeVos And The School Reopening Directives That Could Kill America’s Teachers.” Forbes, 12 Jul 2020. Electronically accessed at https://www.forbes.com/sites/sethcohen/2020/07/12/betsy-devos-and-the-school-opening-directives-that-could-kill-americas-teachers/#4630ba252852, 13 Jul 2020.