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Sullivan: Unless we act now, the students most disadvantaged by school closures will be even more so when schools reopen

Joan Sullivan | June 18, 2020

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Partnership for LA Schools CEO Joan Sullivan poses with a Stevenson Middle School parent volunteer and her children during an awards ceremony celebrating Partnership school communities and partners. (Partnership for Los Angeles Schools)

Although we aren’t yet through the worst of the pandemic, there are signs that our collective efforts to “flatten the curve” have not been in vain. We can begin to look forward with some hope to the gradual return of normal life. For many of us in education, our thoughts are focused on what comes next for students and families in our traditional public school system.

For students living in poverty, like more than 80 percent of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, school closures have hit particularly hard. Low-income families are less likely to have the laptops, wireless internet, and physical space necessary to continue rigorous distance learning at home and are more likely to work in service jobs that are vulnerable to layoffs and exposed to infection. In several of the communities served by my organization, the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, fewer than 20 percent of students had internet connected computers at home before this crisis. We know that equity and opportunity gaps are growing for our families, despite the heroic efforts of the district, their teachers and administrators.

And while the economic repercussions of the pandemic are still fully unknown, they could result in the largest global recession in history. No matter what happens next, I am fully confident of one thing: When a recession hits, it hits our most vulnerable families and students the hardest. This includes massive cuts to education funding that have historically fallen on schools serving students in poverty much harder. Unless we take action now, the students most disadvantaged by physical school closures will be even more disadvantaged when school reopens.

Ten years ago, when we were still in the depths of the Great Recession, educator layoffs at LA Unified provided a devastating example of ongoing inequity. At many schools in affluent communities, not a single teacher was laid off. In contrast, at many high-need schools in communities such as Watts and South Los Angeles, two-thirds of teachers received pink slips.

As the new education deputy for the City of Los Angeles, a big part of my job was to support a lawsuit seeking to force the state to provide the resources and policy changes necessary to prevent this injustice. It proved challenging. The courts struggled to find a solution, since California is perpetually near the bottom of the pack in per-student public education funding.

I am more hopeful now than I was then that we can protect teachers in a downturn. With so many of us trying to cope with our own children’s distance learning — while we try to maintain our productivity (and sanity) — awareness of all that teachers do and appreciation for their dedication and skill has never been higher.

However, school communities and teachers need more than just our appreciation. First, voters need to support adequate funding for public schools. A ballot measure to invest more deeply in public education, called Schools and Communities First, will be in front of voters in November. Approving this measure will bring hundreds of millions of dollars to Los Angeles schools just as they need the resources most.

Second, Los Angeles Unified and school districts across the state need to make a commitment to equity when determining budgets. As we saw in 2010, cutting all budgets “equally” does not have an equal impact on our communities. School districts need to make a public commitment now, in time for 2020-21 budgets due in June, to protect our highest-need schools. Without such commitments now, schools serving our most vulnerable students will feel compelled to begin reducing programs immediately to start saving for the feared downturn, thus hurting our students even before a recession strikes in full.

Finally, Los Angeles Unified and other districts should make every effort to avoid laying off teachers, and in particular, to avoid the disproportionate impacts suffered in 2010. It would be devastating to lay off teachers who have chosen to serve our most vulnerable communities, even as the state and nation grapples with critical teacher shortages. The negative impact would linger for years to come.

We are in tough times, and we’re not sure what the future holds. Let’s face it together with an abiding belief that hard times bring out the better angels of our nature and that now is the time to forge a stronger and more just society for all our children.

Joan Sullivan is the chief executive officer of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit working to transform education at a network of low-income Los Angeles Unified School District schools in Boyle Heights, South LA and Watts.

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