‘A high-quality education was out of reach for too many of our nation’s students and families’

3rd grader reading. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

In a sweeping effort to improve opportunities and outcomes for students in high-poverty schools and disadvantaged communities, the Biden administration Wednesday launched a new initiative to promote equity in classrooms across the nation.

Those efforts include a web series to “reimagine” how states can promote academic opportunities in underserved communities going forward, and guidance on how schools can operate more equitably as the nation pulls itself out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The initiative also include ensuring that states do not cut funding to low-income schools and communities.

“This is our moment as educators and as leaders to transform our education systems so they are truly serving all of our nation’s students,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a Wednesday press release about the initiative.

“While COVID-19 has worsened many inequities in our schools and communities, we know that even before the pandemic, a high-quality education was out of reach for too many of our nation’s students and families.”

For decades, educators have struggled with gaps in achievement between white students and students of color; schoolchildren have been tracked into lower-level courses and discipline of students have been tinged by race, among other civil rights concerns.

In March 2021, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act into law, providing stimulus money to the nation in order to help recover from the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, including to state and local education systems. A Wednesday press release announced that these funds should be used to diminish inequities among schools and students.

The Biden administration added a provision to the American Rescue Plan to “ensure that school districts and schools serving a large share of students from low-income backgrounds will not experience disproportionate budget cuts and that the school districts with the highest poverty do not receive any decrease in state per-pupil funding below their pre-pandemic level.”

This provision serves as a condition for state and local education agencies to receive funds from the American Rescue Plan Act regarding relief funding to K-12 education, according to a document from the U.S. Department of Education.

The Wednesday press release also announced a report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, highlighting that the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it exacerbated existing achievement gaps from certain underserved communities.

The new report, called “Education in a Pandemic: The Disparate Impacts of COVID-19 on America’s Students” identifies several observations about how COVID impacted disparities in academic achievements among many groups, noting that:

/Many students of color faced hurdles regarding access to technologies that impacted their academic opportunities when schools shifted to distance learning.

/English Language Learners having to suddenly shift to an at home learning environment at the height of the pandemic may have made their education experience even harder.

/Students with disabilities may have had limited access to aid and support during the pandemic, leading to greater “disability-based disparities in academic achievement.”

/LGBTQ+ students have faced greater risk for anxiety and stress from being less connected to supportive communities, friends, and school faculty. Some may have faced higher risk of abuse from hostile family members.

/K-12 students and postsecondary students — particularly among girls, women, transgender and gender non-conforming students — may have experienced heightened risks of sexual harassments and abuse, including from household members and intimate-partners.

/Higher education institutions have seen declines in enrollment of students from low-income backgrounds since the pandemic began.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s press release, the findings from this report will be part of the discussions in the upcoming “Equity Summit Series” over the coming months, with the first event starting June 22 at 1 p.m.

The first webinar in the series expects to focus on how communities and schools can reimagine the education system to create a more inclusive and equitable environment for students, particularly in underserved communities  with students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and students of color.