It’s Time to Focus on Real Solutions for Our Students

By Maya Wiley and Lee Saunders

Nothing is more important to families, workers, and our country than educating our children and doing it well. We must work together to support our children and schools. As we continue to strive toward recovery from the trauma and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and work to make up for lost ground, now is the time to listen and learn from educators, parents, and our students about what has worked and what more we must do to support and educate our children. For that, we also need to support our teachers, administrators, and school staff.

Let’s remember where we were just three years ago. As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country in the spring of 2020, medical professionals, public health officials, and governments alike had to quickly understand the virus and work to save lives. We lost 1.1 million Americans to the virus, lost countless jobs, watched as mental health crises soared, and had to figure out how to stem evictions, hunger, and more.

Caught in that crisis were our kids, families, and educators, many of them parents themselves. Classroom teachers and support staff, used to being there for their students in terrifying moments, faced staggering challenges — including how to support students through a screen, for those children lucky enough to have one. More than 1,300 former and current educators have died because of COVID-19. Of that number, 451 were active educators. For families of color, including teachers, administrators, and support staff of color, the pandemic hit even harder. From death rates to the digital divide, housing overcrowding, and homelessness, Black, Latino, Asian American, and Native American children, families, and educators faced higher COVID rates and deaths and magnified hardships from hunger to gun violence.

While COVID-19 deniers dragged their feet, educators were acting. As early as April 2020, unions like the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) published four proposals for safely reopening schools and addressing the challenges of the pandemic. In the fall of 2021, the AFT invested $5 million in 28 states to get kids back in classrooms. Additionally, the National Education Association threw the full weight of its membership in support of record-breaking resources for public schools across the country, invested heavily in critically needed mental health services, and created a vaccine resource center to empower educators and students to get back into classrooms safely. Resources were the key.

And, while educators continued to work towards a solution, some lawmakers aligned with the Trump administration not only downplayed the dangers of the virus, but they later voted against the American Rescue Plan, which included $126 billion for K-12 schools — funding specifically to address learning recovery post-pandemic.

That’s why a recent hearing by the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic was so widely off base. The truth is, many on the committee could look to their own votes in favor of less funding for public education as the reason for where we are. As we see debates about whether or not Congress will agree to pay the nation’s past-due bills and protect the economy, too many politicians are demanding cuts that will undermine our children. The current Republican proposal to cut domestic spending in exchange for raising the debt ceiling would cut funds to schools with high numbers of low-income students, harming 25 million children. It would cut support to more than 7 million children with disabilities. Two-hundred thousand children would lose out on early childhood education through the Head Start program.

Instead of addressing how we support our children and ensure that they are prepared for the next school year, this committee brought in the president of the AFT, Randi Weingarten, to talk about school closures from three years ago. This was just a distraction and will seed more disinformation and doubt. In a functioning democracy, we expect disagreement, but we demand discussion about real problems and meaningful solutions.

Sadly, this hearing ignored the mission-critical discussion about how we improve education — where we’d talk about equitable and just resource allocation that takes into consideration historical racial inequalities and the needs of English language learners, students with disabilities, and students who face bullying because they are LGBTQ+. We should have a hearing where we uplift our Native students who have demanded Congress make good on its trust responsibilities since before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19; where we remember Black students who have never reaped the equal educational opportunity promised by the outcome of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education; and where we remember Latino, Asian American/Pacific Islander, and ALL of our students, who deserve the opportunity to see themselves in the front of the classroom and in textbooks.

And, we should have a conversation about and take action to address the abysmal wages of educators and support staff. Teacher shortages due to lagging wages are real.

This hearing could be about education resources, investment, and infrastructure, where we’d talk about empty libraries, leaking roofs, and broken playgrounds. But a hearing on any of these items has not been called.

The civil rights community has made specific demands to meet all of these needs. We urge Congress to immediately turn its attention to a policy agenda that provides ALL children the opportunity they deserve: to learn, grow, and thrive. And it begins with spending our government’s time and resources on the issues that will critically shift our students’ collective futures.

Maya Wiley is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Ms. Wiley is a nationally recognized civil rights activist, professor, and attorney.

Lee Saunders is president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a union of 1.4 million public-service workers. Mr. Saunders also serves on the board of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights as its treasurer.