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Piano prodigy Andre Watts, the first artist to appear on "Live from Lincoln Center," was born in Nuremberg, Germany in 1946.

Ed Department releases Equity Plan

POSTED: April 20, 2022, 8:30 am

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On the first day he took office, President Joe Biden signed Executive Order 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. The sweeping executive order affected ninety federal agencies, including Cabinet-level agencies, to produce the first-ever Equity Plans in the federal government.

Last week the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) released its Equity Plan for 2022 in response to Executive Order 13985. In a press release, the DoE noted, “From Pre-K through postsecondary and adult learners, education has the power to bring the American Dream within reach of every individual, lift communities, draw people together, strengthen our democracy, drive our economy, and meet our nation’s vast potential. To meet this potential, our nation’s education system must reckon with and address the long-standing disparities that students from underserved communities face in achieving equal education opportunity.”

The department’s equity plan arrives at a time when K-12 public education in the United States is in a crisis state. The COVID-19 pandemic forced school closures and reliance on virtual instruction and resulted in students experiencing learning loss and a host of issues related to the mental stress from isolation. While the pandemic affected all students, it was students who were already struggling that were most harmed. These were typically Black and Latino children on the lower end of the achievement spectrum who already fell into the achievement gap. The pandemic exacerbated pre-existing learning difficulties and Black and brown children fell further behind. Worse, there were incidents in school districts of students missing from daily instruction, failing to log on to virtual lessons with districts reporting tens of thousands of students unaccounted for.

The COVID-19 pandemic affected school districts of all sizes and demographics. The shutdown particularly challenged large, urban school districts. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, existing inequities and a persistent achievement gap occupied the attention of educators in public schools in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Detroit, Baltimore, and other urban centers. The pandemic, if not a knockout blow, has certainly dealt a near fatal blow to school districts across the country. The loss of students combined with the loss of teachers will necessitate school closings and force school districts to reconsider the provision of educational services.

At the same time, there is a well organized and coordinated attack by right-wing activists against public education with the support of complicit Republican governors. In multiple states, campaigns have been launched to ban books in school libraries by Black and LGTBQ authors, strip curricula of lessons on Black history by falsely claiming Critical-Race-Theory is being used as a teaching framework in K-12 schools when it is not, targeting and punishing teachers who reference ‘race’ in the classroom, and seeking the ouster of school Board members that are deemed ‘liberal’ sympathizers. Republican Governors such as Ron DeSantis in Florida, Greg Abbott in Texas, and Brian Kemp in Georgia have embraced this cultural offensive as a means to cultivate support from the far right.

As the DoE rolls out its equity plan it does so at a time when the very idea of public education as a public good is in question. The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and a politically calculated attack has caused an exodus of teachers, and Black families that turn to home schooling as an alternative.

The Department of Education notes that through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act of 2021, $122 billion was distributed to help K-12 schools stay open, and address the academic, social, and emotional needs of all students. These funds addressed a host of needs, including academic support, social workers, and school nurses. The Department also invested $3 billion in ARP funds to help children with disabilities disproportionately impacted by disruptions in learning caused by the pandemic. These funds supported almost eight million children served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and school districts used these funds to upgrade technology in classrooms, hire additional special education personnel, support transportation for students with disabilities and purchase new materials for classrooms.

Much of the department’s 2022 Equity Plan is a pandemic response, with the focus on transparency in the use of ARP funds. While state and local education agencies (school districts) have discretion in the use of ARP funds, they must prepare public plans describing how they intend to use ARP ESSER funds. All state education agencies submitted plans to the Department and DoE has approved those plans, and all local education agencies must submit their plans to their state agencies and make them available to the public. DoE is requiring reporting of data that reveals how these funds are allocated to support students most impacted by the pandemic, the specific uses of the funds for evidence-based interventions, strategies used to re-engage students with poor attendance, and the number of students participating in interventions and whether the services are universally appropriated or targeted, and the provision of educators and school staff.

The DoE’s Equity Plan calls for inclusive planning at the state education agency (SEA) and local education agency (LEA) levels. Stakeholders must include students, families, Tribal Nations if applicable, representatives of children with disabilities, English learners, foster care youth, incarcerated youth, and civil rights organizations.

Through the department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), civil rights data is being collected for the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years, marking the first time OCR has collected data from public schools for two years in a row rather than every other year. This data collection will allow DoE to identify inequities in educational opportunities as the nation continues to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it has had on students’ academic and social development. The OCR is also collecting data related to students’ access to virtual and/or in-person learning to gain a better understanding of how instructional methods affected students. Of interest to DoE is how virtual, in-person and hybrid instruction impacted the ways schools provided instruction to students.

State and federal officials will monitor the resiliency of the nation’s public education system in the coming year. As students resume in-person instruction at each level of K-12 public education, elementary, middle school, and high school, it will be critical for school districts to support the professional development of education professionals to help students recover from the pandemic. For early learners, the test will be to improve literacy and bring students to grade-level expectations. Middle school students who lost valuable instructional time face the challenge to ready themselves for high school and students will need to address emotional trauma connected to the loss of important social connections during their forced exile from school. Pandemic induced social and emotional trauma experienced by all school age children will be an issue that school districts will grapple with in the coming year. High school students, who have experienced almost two years of virtual instruction, will be challenged to get on pace to graduate on time and there may be a bump in dropout rates as some students will be unable to get back on track. The Department of Education and education scholars will monitor students’ performance to determine if the unprecedented bump in resources resulting from ARP ESSER funds will positively impact and alter the trajectories of public-school students coming out of the pandemic. It is the billion-dollar question that has implications beyond the pandemic response and speaks to the future of public education in America.

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