COVID-19 has ‘exacerbated educational disparities’ for Black students, former Education Secretary tells Congress

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

WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated racial inequities in education, a disparity that Congress needs to help rectify, the former education chief under President Barack Obama told lawmakers Monday.

“Our education system is fraught with inequities that existed before COVID-19,” John King Jr., who served as Secretary of Education in 2016-2017, told House lawmakers at a hearing on the issue. 

“COVID-19 has exacerbated these educational disparities,” King told the U.S. House Education & Labor Committee on Monday. King is president and CEO of The Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that focuses on opportunity and achievement gaps in education. 

King has spoken before about those issues, saying at a Congressional hearing earlier this month that  “when our students return to school buildings, they will need additional support as they grapple with the continued reality of racism in America.”

As the COVID-19 crisis continued, students turned to remote learning at home rather than instruction with teachers at brick-and-mortar schools.

Researchers estimated that students could lose seven months of learning on average during the pandemic. But they found Black students may fall behind by more than 10 months, and Hispanic students by nine months, according to an analysis by research firm McKinsey & Co. 

Before the coronavirus, Black and Latino children were already less likely to have access to high-quality preschool.  

“Our nation’s students of color and their families find themselves enduring a pandemic that disproportionately impacts their health and safety, mired in an economic crisis that disproportionately affects their financial well-being, and living in a country that too often still struggles to recognize their humanity,” King wrote in his written testimony for Monday’s hearing.

“We must acknowledge the role race plays, in pointing out the disparate impacts that catastrophic events have on Black and minority communities,” Florida Democrat Frederica Wilson said at the hearing. She called into the remote hearing from her home.

“Many of us have heard the old saying, ‘When America gets a cold, Black America gets pneumonia.’ That happens to Black America when America has a pandemic too,” Wilson said.

Even before the pandemic, researchers identified a significant racial funding gap in education, because of reliance on property taxes as the main support for school funding. That means schools in wealthier areas can raise more money. In Florida, however, the state relies more on sales tax revenues and tourism dollars, among other funds.

Public school budgets could face a further blow in light of the economic downturn resulting from the coronavirus. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates states may face a $615 billion revenue shortfall over the next three years. 

The federal CARES Act directed the money to be distributed using a formula that favors high-poverty schools. But Education Secretary Betsy DeVos used a calculation that allowed millions of dollars to also go to private schools.  

King’s organization and more than 70 other education groups have asked Congress for significant additional aid to schools: at least $250 billion of new aid for K-12 schools and higher education. 

Valerie Rawlston Wilson, director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute, spoke at the Monday hearing, saying schools need standards in place for teachers, staff and student safety.

“I don’t know that parents will feel very confident in sending their students back to school if they don’t have consistent enforceable standards,” Wilson said.