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The Pandemic Has Magnified The Winners And Losers In Maine's Educational System

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public file
South Portland High School sophomore Max Saffer-Meng works on homework at his home in South Portland in 2017.

During the last few months of the pandemic, remote learning has been a challenge for teachers and students.

Some schools have been able to provide several hours of online instruction a day, while others have focused on the noneducational but essential services they provide.

A variety of factors affect how students are performing in this new environment, including who’s at home and what kind of access they have to the standard technology tools of modern classrooms.

Mara Tieken, associate professor of education at Bates College, spoke with All Things Considered host Nora Flaherty for our occasional series of interviews, “Lessons From The Pandemic,” which asks experts, advocates and others what lessons COVID-19 has revealed about our world.

Tieken says the pandemic is illuminating how powerfully class lines are shaping student’s learning experience.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Tieken: Wealthier districts and wealthy private schools are typically able to offer more instruction with more rigorous and engaging learning experiences than poorer districts can offer right now. So wealthier districts and private schools have more resources and stronger infrastructure to support instruction, communication services, etc. But it’s also about a student’s home situation, where wealthier families, they might be more likely to have a parent at home who’s not working, who can support the student’s online learning. Or maybe they’re more likely to have multiple laptops or devices so that siblings can actually work simultaneously on schoolwork, or they’re more likely to have strong and consistent internet access.

And I think it’s also important to note that many low-income families and students are under considerable stress right now, especially if parents are working low-wage, frontline jobs, or they’re worried about unemployment or maybe eviction, or maybe they’re even falling ill themselves. We know that students don’t learn as well when they’re under stress. So this is also exacerbating educational inequality. We also need to remember that schools meet all sorts of needs beyond just instructional ones. They feed students, often lunch and breakfast and, in some cases, they also provide weekend meals. They provide needed physical and mental health services, they offer occupational and speech therapies. So especially at the beginning of the pandemic, these districts were really focused on meeting these kinds of basic needs.

Flaherty: And one thing that strikes me as you’re talking about this is schools and poor districts that spend more of their time and money meeting students’ basic needs — that means that they are probably spending even more money on that now.

Exactly. And there is some federal help for some of this. There’s the CARES Act, for example, but oftentimes, that doesn’t cover all of the costs. The rest of this is going to fall to taxpayers. And so it should also be noted that school budgets are going to be stressed for a really long time going forward. So just as schools need more money, localities are less able to offer it, especially poorer places. We’re also doing all of this in an unprecedented economic downturn, which is making it that much harder for poorer districts right now.

How is what’s happening right now during the pandemic a more extreme version of what was already there?

These inequalities have always existed. So as tragic as what we’re seeing happening right now, as tragic as this is, this isn’t surprising. We shouldn’t be surprised. We give our districts really unequal resources, yet we expect our schools to produce equal results. A lot of this has to do with educational funding. Schools basically get funds from three sources: the federal government, state governments and local. And the local funds are typically property taxes. So what this means is that wealthy communities, which have lots of high-wealth property, they can generate all kinds of money to put toward education, while poorer districts even those that tax themselves at really high rates, they just can’t generate those kinds of resources. Some states try to even out these disparities and Maine actually does pretty well in this regard. But they’re not evened out entirely.

In the future, what lessons do we take from what we have learned from this pandemic?

So first, I hope we do take some lessons from this. And the talk about going back to normal really worries me because we know that normal was fundamentally unequal to begin with. So one lesson, I think, is making internet a public utility. It’s absolutely necessary for student learning. The bigger one, though, is reforming education funding. Right now we’re funding educational inequality. And we’ve got to move away from this kind of reliance on property tax if we want to really begin to see any other kinds of outcomes. And then more immediately, I think we need better communication with families and better communication with all families across lines of race, class and language, not just the families that are most available right now

Originally published 4:55 p.m. July 13, 2020