A Virtual New Deal: Put Americans to Work Now by Preparing our Education Infrastructure for the Second Wave of COVID-19
The recent surge in COVID-19 makes it unlikely many kids will be able to return to schools in the Fall, businesses are closing and guardians are continuing to get laid off. I want to get our parents back to work by helping kids succeed during virtual learning. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal pulled us out of the Great Depression through an intense overhaul of American infrastructure. Today, we don’t need physical infrastructure – we need virtual infrastructure for our schools and socio-emotional infrastructure for our students. The New Deal in the time of COVID-19 should focus on investing in the hearts and minds of children.
Every U.S. entity, from individuals to government, corporations, small businesses, and nonprofits, has a role to play. If we plan as a nation and work together, the whole of what we create will be so much greater than the sum of the parts. In an effort to eat the apple one bite at a time, let’s break down how we can do this using the three R’s that made the New Deal famous and lasting.
Relief: We need to help our students by employing their parents and neighbors who have been laid off. There are thousands of unemployed software developers, translators, audiovisual experts, graphic designers, counselors, customer service representatives and more who all have the skills necessary to set up a national virtual educational support infrastructure, helping our students keep up with coursework and prevent the COVID-19 version of the summer slide.
There are more than 13,000 school districts in the United States, but we don’t need each of them to create a small infrastructure plan while also dealing with the problems of today and tomorrow. Instead, we need the federal government. Every one of us should call our federal representatives and ask them to allocate money for a Virtual New Deal in the next relief bill so we can begin creating and staffing this much-needed plan.
Recovery: It will take time to get this Virtual New Deal functioning. While that’s happening on a federal path, we, as individuals, business owners, and community leaders can serve as a virtual volunteer corps in our own communities. Almost every skill or resource we have can help students and families during this pandemic, but here are a few that I think will make a big impact.
Nationally, 35% of fourth-grade public school students are proficient in reading. What if we created a volunteer corps of everyday Americans that could volunteer to read to children virtually every day and engage them in what they are learning?
Small business owners who find themselves with unused tech equipment as a result of teleworking can lend it to local schools, nonprofit organizations, or families to help with education. While small businesses can donate individual items or hours here and there, corporations can do this on a larger scale, providing resources, discounting software, or allowing employees to volunteer as needed during the workday.
Bilingual community members can offer translation services to help ensure all students and guardians have access to identical supports and materials, or they could act as bilingual intermediaries between guardians and the school system. They can also conduct emotional well-being check-ins for households of various backgrounds; those few moments on the phone can help provide peace of mind to students and parents or even uncover issues at home that teachers didn’t know about.
Reform: This is where the two come together – an infrastructure that connects those who have with those who need. A year ago, many of us would not have believed a shutdown of this magnitude could or would happen. Now that we’ve experienced it, we’ve seen what our school systems have done properly with the limited time they had, but we also see what could improve.
As Houston Executive Director at Latinos for Education, I have a front-row seat to the incredible untapped intellectual capital that can help our schools, educators, students and families if we have systems in place to leverage those interested parties. How do we get wireless internet to families that don’t have it? What media partners can we call on to produce educational videos for PBS? what technology companies can help ensure students and families can speak securely with school counselors? What hotlines or online registrations can we put in place so a helper in Nebraska can assist a struggling parent in Texas? The list goes on.
Whether it be the current resurgence of COVID-19 or a natural disaster, there will be another reason for us to strengthen our virtual infrastructure, so we need to be ready.
My parents were undocumented for many years. They fled El Salvador in 1980 to escape a civil war in which they had each seen friends murdered by government death squads. They met in Los Angeles, married, and started a life together. For six years, they lived in fear of deportation. Then, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act into law. While flawed, it did allow them to work legally and apply for citizenship.
That same year, I was born. I grew up an American citizen with parents whose status was protected. That meant my parents could interview for any jobs they chose and drive without fear that an accidental illegal U-turn would send them back to El Salvador.
Many of our friends and family were not so lucky. Just through timing and sheer luck, doors that were open to me as the American-born child of protected immigrants would never be open to them. In 2012, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) eased that burden for many immigrants of my generation – many of whom have known no other home but the United States. They could go to college, work, and live their lives looking toward a future in the country they call home – but it’s all temporary.
When it became clear in the past few years that DACA was in jeopardy, I thought of all the ways that those of us who are protected would be affected if the 750,000 DREAMers were forced out of the U.S. Yes, 9,000 are educators and 14,000 are healthcare workers; they are teaching our kids and saving our lives. But we’d also feel the loss in more intangible ways.
America is made up of more than 325 million threads, each representing an invaluable member of our country – veterinarians, restaurant workers, math tutors, class clowns, kindergarten students, Pee Wee soccer coaches and more. 750,000 of those threads are also DACA recipients. If we force them out, we’re left with a hole in the fabric of America. And, we’d be sending our fellow friends, teachers, and healthcare workers back to countries they don’t recognize or governments they can’t trust.
The Supreme Court’s recent ruling against the rescission of DACA means the fabric of our country stays intact for a while longer. While DACA is not the end-all, be-all, it is a Band-Aid, and the Supreme Court’s recent ruling is a much needed, albeit temporary, sigh of relief. To strengthen these protections right now, we need:
As individuals, we must do what we can to keep the fabric intact by 1) encouraging eligible people to apply for the DACA program and 2) calling our representatives and telling them to pass the American Dream and Promise Act to provide DREAMers with a permanent path to residency and citizenship. You can reach the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121. I’ve already called. I hope you will too.
When my parents – a housekeeper and a mechanic – saved enough money to buy a home, they had no idea that decision would lead me to one of the worst performing middle schools in Los Angeles. Had they bought a house just a few blocks away, I would have been zoned to one of the best performing schools in the county.
I excelled in elementary school and was afraid that I would not be able to fully realize my academic potential by attending a low-performing school. In a desperate attempt to salvage my education, my mom and I arranged a meeting with the principal at the high-performing school to try to convince him to allow me into his school.
At the meeting, my mom made her case in Spanish to the principal while struggling not to break down crying: “Solamente quiero que tenga una buena educacion.” I quickly translated her plea: “My mom says she just wants me to have a good education.”
It was quite the tearjerker moment but, unfortunately, tears only went so far. I’ll never forget the principal turning us away saying, “I’m really sorry. I wish I could help, but you’re not zoned to this school, and there’s nothing I can do about that.”
I then attended a middle school where I fell further behind academically.
Fortunately, I then went to a high school where outstanding teachers helped me get on a path to college.
I’m passionate about data because of its potential to shine a light on the inequities I experienced firsthand and because of its ability to begin a conversation about solutions for kids facing similar challenges to those I had to overcome. While data may not tell the whole story about a school, it helps depict a snapshot of the conditions and outcomes children experience every day. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released their 2019 A-F ratings assigning most schools in Texas with a letter grade.
There’s much we can begin to learn from this publicly available information:
What’s striking to me about this data is the untapped potential it highlights: If Latino low-income schools in the Rio Grande Valley are succeeding, why can’t more of our schools elsewhere in Texas succeed similarly? When I see these numbers, I imagine a story – like mine growing up – of a child behind every number. A story of untapped potential. Latino students – even while growing up economically disadvantaged – can succeed, but they need us to provide them excellent schools.
Through the following scatter plot, we can see the wide variation in performance among majority-Latino and majority-economically disadvantaged schools across Texas:
There are nearly 1,000 schools in that red box earning a top grade in the TEA ratings (80-100). Who’s attending these schools? Latino students who are economically disadvantaged. What makes them different? How are they able to tap into their students’ potential?
While there are bright spots, the variation in performance reaffirms our children can succeed when the right systems are in place, and there’s more that we can do to help Latino children growing up in poverty.
Only 1 in 4 schools in Texas that is majority-black and majority-economically disadvantaged earned an “A” or “B” compared to 2 in 4 Latino-majority and majority-economically disadvantaged schools. No community and group of children are the same. If we are to improve our schools to more equitably serve our students, we have to take into account the rich diversity our students represent otherwise a one size fits all approach will have limited success.
Behind every number, there’s a rich and complex story. Often, a story of the incredible potential our students reflect on a daily basis. Throughout the data, we see numerous shining examples of students and schools outperforming even in difficult circumstances. The data shows our kids can succeed – and they are succeeding. It’s incumbent upon us – the adults – to create a fairer system that gives all of our children the opportunity to fully realize their potential.
Everything is bigger in Texas – including our demographic shifts: Since 2005 there has been an increase of 800,000 Latino children in the Texas public educational system, bringing the total number of Latino students to three million. For comparison, the 800,000 additional Latino students alone represent a student population that is larger than the independent populations of Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming, and Washington, D.C.
In Greater Houston, Latino children make up half of the student population across 50 school districts. Texas’ future will be defined by the success our children achieve, and if Latino children succeed, Texas will succeed.
Despite our best efforts, we’re falling short on this front. Across Texas, only 11% of Latino students are graduating college-ready. So, what will it take to accelerate Latino student success?
The good news is that throughout Texas there are schools that are majority-Latino and majority low-income that are performing very well and there's a lot we can learn from these schools.
In the recent A-F ratings released by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), 74% of Latino majority/low-income majority-schools in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) earned an "A" or "B" grade. This stands in stark contrast with clusters of schools with similar demographics in other regions (as defined by TEA).
Region 1: Edinburg (Rio Grande Valley) stands out. There are over 400,000 students in Region 1 with 500+ schools that are majority Latino and majority low-income.
Looking at the top fifteen school districts (in size) in Region 1, you can see a combination of both traditional and charter school districts doing well with majority Latino/majority low-income schools:
The Latino community is very diverse, so we can't assume that what works in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) will automatically work anywhere else; however, I think there's a lot we can learn from the success of these schools in the RGV.
There's only so much you can learn from the data and every number represents a student, a school, a family, and a community - each reflecting a complex reality. If I had a magic wand, here are the questions I'd want to explore further to learn more about the RGV: