Top education officials testify in Congress on racial and academic disparities as states grapple to reopen schools

The U.S. Capitol. Credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Two state Education Commissioners and a former U.S. Secretary of Education testified virtually to the U.S. Senate Wednesday on how to safely reopen schools, with academic equity and racial disparity coming to the forefront of the conversation.

The education officials told U.S. senators that the COVID-19 crisis coupled by  schools shutting down has worsened issues faced by minority students, low-income families, and students with disabilities.

John B. King, Jr., former U.S. Secretary of Education under President Barack Obama’s presidency, highlighted the additional stress faced by black students in America, saying “when our students return to school buildings, they will need additional support as they grapple with the continued reality of racism in America.”

The comments came as the nation reels over police brutality and the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in police custody, sparking protests across the nation and the world.

King also said that “Congress should allocate dedicated funds to help schools add more learning time—such as through summer school, extended school days or school year, or afterschool programs.”

The Phoenix has written about the struggles of families and educators trying to deal with remote learning at home, with students falling behind in their studies.

As to when brick-and-mortar schools will open, Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, said “it will likely be the fall of 2021 before we begin to approach normal.”

Democrat U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, of Washington state, said that districts and schools need to consider many aspects when reopening  — but they cannot do it alone.

“They need in-depth, actionable guidance from the federal government on best practices to ensure the safety of students, educators, school staff, and the broader community,” said Murray.

The hearing described as “COVID-19: Going Back to School Safely,” was convened by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions led by Republican chairman Alexander.

The group of panelists testifying included King, now the president and CEO of The Education Trust; Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn of Tennessee, Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt, of Nebraska and Susana Cordova, superintendent of Denver Public Schools.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. Credit: Screenshot, Florida Channel.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran was not part of the panel testifying and has yet to announced concrete, statewide plans for academic year 2020-21 in Florida, as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Blomstedt, of Nebraska, emphasized that needs of school districts will vary.

“There are few one-size-fits-all moments in these planning efforts,” he said in the virtual committee meeting. “It is becoming increasingly clear that large- scale guidance needs to be available for local school and health officials to customize for local conditions and environments.”

“School closures due to the pandemic, although unquestionably necessary to protect public health, have had a disparate impact on students of color, students in low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, and English learners,” King said.

Schwinn, of Tennessee, emphasized that districts need access to broadband to address the digital divide.

“Our own Governor often references not having internet on his farm, and that is a reality that is all too true for many of our students and their teachers,” she said.

Former USDE chief King urged Congress to increased federal investment in education.

Without help from Congress, there will be no conceivable way to avoid lay-offs and hiring freezes, King said, particularly related to educators and staff in high-poverty schools.

Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.