Kennedy: Lack of Technology Is Just the Latest Barrier to Education for Low-Income Students. Time for Philanthropy to Step Up and Help

Kerry Kennedy speaking to students at New York City’s Hunter College High School. (Ojos Nebulosos Photography)

In developing its public school system, the United States deliberately departed from the traditional European model of channeling students from wealthy backgrounds into rigorous academic tracks and those from the working class into vocational ones. 

Instead, as Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz note in their book The Race Between Education and Technology, the aim was to provide universal comprehensive education to every child.

Over the past 200 years, the nation’s public schools have fallen short of that goal on occasion, and the courts have interceded, as in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” education wasn’t, in fact, equal at all.

Today, another American divide of race and class in public schools has emerged as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, one whose presence is likely to remain a fixture even as lockdown restrictions begin to ease.

With schools shuttered from coast to coast, virtual learning is the only option for the country’s 50.8 million public and 5.8 million private elementary and high school students. This necessary adaptation means that now, more than ever, a disproportionate number of poor and minority students are unable to keep up with lessons, due to a lack of access to technology. 

Among households with school-age children, less than 55 percent of those with an annual income below $40,000 have reliable internet service at home, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, compared with roughly 75 percent in households earning $100,000 or more annually. 

Largely, it is minority students who are facing these challenges as they pursue their education. The NCES reports that 34 percent of African-American students age 18 and under are living in poverty, compared with 28 percent of Hispanic students and 11 percent of white students. 

Providers have offered free high-speed internet to low-income households across the country for limited trial periods, and many school districts have provided tablets and laptops to their students. Still, a massive resource gap remains. 

A recent survey by Common Sense Media found that 4 in 10 teens said they haven’t participated in online learning since schools closed — 47 percent of public school students polled said they have not attended a single online class, compared with 11 percent of private school students.

How long will this go on? Nobody is certain. As states consider welcoming students back this fall, the AASA, The School Superintendents’ Association, has estimated that districts will incur nearly $1.8 million in costs to meet federal health guidelines. With reopened schools in Europe imposing strict class size caps to enforce social distancing, it’s likely that virtual learning, at least in some capacity, will become a fixture worldwide as societies begin a slow journey back to normalcy. 

Unless we act now to secure more federal and state aid for public schools, we are destined to add to the toll that austerity has wrought on kids over the past decade: larger class sizes, widening inequality and more segregation. As American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said recently, “The challenges are immense, but we are not powerless actors subject to the whims of history — we can intervene if we’re serious about funding our kids’, and our nation’s, future.”

As school districts across the country grapple with how to use limited emergency funds to address technology gaps and develop online lesson plans, philanthropic groups must step up to ensure that children don’t fall through the cracks because of the color of their skin or their income level. Together, we must develop a comprehensive plan to keep our nation’s most vulnerable students from facing yet another barrier to education — and the path to future opportunity it offers. 

Hoping to inspire others to support their local schools, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has provided iPads for vulnerable Austin, Texas, middle school students at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders to facilitate learning off campus, and a second wave of technology provisions is planned. This effort comes at the same time that the organization has developed new, free online lessons in its Speak Truth to Power program for students and educators adjusting to virtual learning. It’s our hope that by better understanding the roles of public-health truth tellers and how the crisis puts human rights at risk, students can better understand and cope with this time of loss, trauma and challenge. 

Jill DiCuffa, a social studies teacher at the selective-enrollment public high school, told us that dozens of her sixth- and seventh-graders can’t access virtual lesson plans due to a lack of access to technology at home. 

African-American and Hispanic students comprise more than 75 percent of the school’s 800 students. And more than 65 percent of the student body come from low-income backgrounds.

“In doing check-in calls with students, we’ve found many are not logging in to virtual lessons because they don’t have a device or access to the internet,” DiCuffa said. “Many of those kids have had to take on new roles as caretakers and breadwinners. Some have told me they’re working 60 hours a week at grocery stores. I’m afraid those are the kids we’re going to lose through this crisis,” she said. 

A commitment to leveling the playing field for children of disparate backgrounds was at the very core of my father’s ideals of equity and social justice. 

During his 1968 campaign for president, he spoke of “another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or bomb in the night.”

“This,” he said, “is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books, and homes without learning.” 

We must heed those words again today, viewing access to technology as the necessary linchpin with which to level the educational playing field. 

America’s schools must not and cannot lose sight of their founding principle: to provide every student, regardless of background, with the ability to succeed, even in the most challenging of circumstances. Today, they need more help than ever from the community as a whole. 

Kerry Kennedy is president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

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