Pandemic highlights existing educational inequalities

By Katie Ryu

The current global pandemic has brought countless changes to the lives and routines of millions of Americans, especially public school students. Most schools have been forced to operate online, now relying completely on a potentially unfamiliar form of education: distance learning. Unfortunately, distance learning appears to have prompted serious challenges and difficulties for many students.

Many students lack reliable internet access. Others must share computers with family, if there’s even a computer to share in the first place. Factors such as a distracting home and learning environments, increased responsibilities at home, and even housing and food insecurity also act as major obstacles to receiving a quality education. 

However, obstacles such as these have always existed for many students. Living and learning through a pandemic is certainly something new, but the inequality of their situations is not. The coronavirus pandemic has only highlighted and aggravated these inequalities present in the American public school system and education in general. In fact, we have what University of Miami law professor Osamudia James describes as a “persistently segregated school system.” 

The reality is that low-income students do not have access to the same resources that more affluent students do. Quality teachers and schools, access to extracurriculars, tutoring, and college counseling are just a few examples of resources that many low-income students often miss out on. This is true outside of the classroom as well, as exemplified by standardized test scores. Those who can afford to take test preparation classes and pay for private tutors are set to perform better and score higher on standardized tests than those who cannot. The lack of access combined with the additional challenges these students face ultimately creates and perpetuates an education system full of socioeconomic disparities. 

Notably, there is even more intersectionality with gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, and especially, race and ethnicity. School funding, or underfunding rather, displays this clearly. 

“School districts that predominantly serve students of color received $23 billion less in funding than mostly white school districts in the United States in 2016, despite serving the same number of students,” Sarah Mervosh of The New York Times said, referencing a report from EdBuild, a non-profit aiming to modernize school funding systems.

Additionally, data analyses from the Brookings Institution Press regarding school finance cases in Alabama, New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Texas have revealed that on all tangible measures, from trained teachers to curriculum rigor, schools with greater numbers of students of color had significantly fewer resources than schools with primarily white students.

There are certain challenges to attaining quality education and higher education that often go unquestioned and ignored. The system is flawed and rife with systemic barriers and unequal opportunity that work against certain groups. Recognition is just the first step in combating the issues. 

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic is only worsening the situation. David Deming, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, studies how internet access affects inequality. While referencing studies analyzing the impact of interruptions in schooling during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as well as teacher strikes in Argentina, he predicts that this interruption will have extreme impacts. 

“We’re going to see a widening of educational inequality that will last a long time and won’t fade away,” Deming said, according to the MIT Technology Review. 


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