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Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Part 3 in a series about leading in the time of COVID.

COVID has done irreparable damage to America. It's divided our nation politically, economically, and institutionally. It's exposed endemic inequities in education that have been previously revealed by the US Supreme Court (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954), the White House (Coleman Report, 1966), and Congress (Title I ESEA, 1965; Title IX Civil Rights Act,1972; Education for All Handicapped Children Act, 1975; NCLB, 2001), all resulting in numerous policies created to level the playing field. But the results of those policies have proven to be far different from their intentions. Like COVID itself, populations systematically de-prioritized have suffered disproportionately. While the cost is incredibly high, a new set of actions, fundamentally utilitarian by design, may emerge as our country reconciles with its past and present.

Solutions to our infamous inclusion among the most inequitable educational systems in the industrialized world have historically resembled blunt imperatives more than thoughtful actions.

Consequentialists may view the actions as deliberately obtuse since the utility of their purpose have not served the greater good. Or any good for that matter.

Now, we find ourselves at a point in our brief national history when we are reckoning with our past in the wake of a perfect storm that we may in time look back on as the turning point in our country, and subsequently our educational system, since it's a microcosm and reflection of society at large.

This prevailing condition, evidenced by students who are systematically afforded vastly different learning opportunities based on their social status, has proven to be stubbornly immutable to change. It suggests an educational system that is institutionally discriminating, by design. COVID has made that clear to anyone who thought the last seventy years of judicial, executive, and legislative remedies have leveled the playing field. Look no further than the casualties of COVID for a stark reminder that when the pandemic started, about 1 of every 4 students in the U.S. and about the same in California lacked either high-speed internet or a capable device to adequately access and participate fully in distance learning (and before pandemic schooling, access to a window to the world and the multitude of resources available via the internet).

In fact, in 2017, the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress published, America's Digital Divide, acknowledging that our economy is increasingly becoming dependent on access to high-speed internet connections.

The authors noted, "The internet, and access to it, has changed our world in such a profound way that for many people, life without it is unimaginable."

Those people would be the Haves. Because the Have-Nots haven't known what they're missing, until now. That same year, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, published, "Why Internet Access Is a Human Right." More recently, the argument is grounded in civil rights, since COVID has made it clear that all students, regardless of race or other factors, do not have equal access to opportunity. After all, technology is increasingly needed to access many opportunities, not just those related to school.

While progress has been made on leveling the access-to-technology playing field, an estimated 300,000 students in California alone still lack access and countless others struggle daily with spotty connections or outdated devices insufficient for their purpose. Another sign of progress is a person or department in most school districts focused solely on equity and access to ensure all students have access to learning opportunities, including students struggling with home or space security in the current environment.

But don't confuse "connecting" students as a response to a pandemic or creating new positions with flashy titles dismantling existing injustices that have systematically marginalized students living in or near poverty. It's treating the symptom, not the disease.

To systematically eliminate the multitude of barriers requires prioritizing education policies designed to improve the situation for the most socio-economically disadvantaged pupils. We have to do better than NCLB and LCFF, policies designed for that purpose that failed, in the case of NCLB, or are deeply flawed, in the case of LCFF, an example of a well intended policy that at this point in time has not translated into more equitable opportunities for students in low-income schools. The COVID highlighted digital divide is evidence of that, among other indicators, including the current push for standardized testing in 2020-21, while most of us are concerned with our children's socio-emotional development and well-being. It's hard not to recognize that the real divide is between policymakers and the boots on the ground.

Aircraft carriers don't turn very quickly. But they do turn.

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