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OPINION

State must fulfill its promise to underserved students

As lawmakers determine the 2021 state budget, they must fulfill their promise to historically underserved students — even if that means wealthier communities receive less.

Chelsea High School was among those closed due to the coronavirus.
Chelsea High School was among those closed due to the coronavirus.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

As millions around the United States risk their lives amid the coronavirus pandemic to demand the end of systemic racism, Massachusetts, too, must confront deep-seated mindsets and policies that have perpetuated some of the largest racial inequities in the nation. Recently, Boston police data showed that while Black residents comprise one-fourth of the city’s population, they represent 69 percent of those stopped by police. The median income of white households across the state is 75 percent higher than that of Black households and twice as high as that of Latinx households. And as documented in our 2018 Number 1 for Some report, the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership found the education system is no exception; across the state, Black and brown students get less of everything that they need for success, from funding, to rigorous instruction, to nurturing and supportive learning environments.

Last year, the Massachusetts Legislature and the Baker administration acknowledged that the state had, for years, failed to meet its obligations to students of color, economically disadvantaged students, English learners, and students with disabilities — and through the Student Opportunity Act, pledged over $1.5 billion to correct course. Today, as lawmakers determine the 2021 state budget, they must fulfill their promise to historically underserved students, even if that means wealthier communities, which are able to raise money locally, get less. Both state and federal resources must be distributed based on student need.

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The 2020-21 academic year will be among the hardest on record due to the pandemic. The physical challenges alone of protecting student and educator safety and ensuring access to technology to enable remote learning are staggering. Just as difficult will be finding ways to meet students’ increased social-emotional and academic needs.

All these challenges will be greatest in communities where the pandemic landed atop years of economic and educational disinvestment. In cities like Chelsea, Brockton, and Springfield, infection and death rates exceed the statewide average, introducing new levels of trauma in families already facing significant adversity. Economic insecurity has pushed more young people into the workforce to support their families. In addition, the digital divide makes it harder for students to learn remotely. The police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks have further eroded trust in government institutions — including schools — that too often marginalize and criminalize Black and brown communities.

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School districts will need to reconsider how they use resources — people, time, and money — to meet the needs of students, families, and educators. They need to:

▪ Ensure that all students and educators have access to electronic devices, the Internet, and technical support necessary to continue learning when they can’t be in classrooms.

▪ Train all staff on culturally competent communication with students and families, and establish systems for regular communication, especially with families whose first language is not English.

▪ Provide all educators with training and curricular materials to ensure rigorous and engaging instruction that builds on students’ cultural strengths and fosters a sense of belonging and possibility, while making up for unfinished learning last school year.

▪ Administer diagnostic assessments to help teachers meet students where they are academically.

▪ Provide additional academic and social-emotional support to students who are struggling.

▪ Coordinate with community-based organizations and other agencies to connect families with additional services they might need, such as physical or mental health supports or housing assistance.

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▪ Take extensive measures — if school buildings reopen in the fall — to ensure student and educator safety, from reconfiguring spaces and schedules to frequently sanitizing surfaces.

Money alone will not fix these issues. In fact, in their Student Opportunity Act plans, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley should require school districts to specify how they will ensure the safety, well-being, and academic success of all students next school year, and how they will assist students of color, English learners, those who are economically disadvantaged, and those who have disabilities. As stated in the law, district leaders should be required to seek input from families and community stakeholders to ensure the plans are responsive to evolving student and family needs. School districts and teacher unions will also need to work together to ensure continuity of learning.

Failing to address funding shortages in the state’s highest-need districts, or worse, cutting support for those districts, will contribute to inequities in opportunity to learn. State budgets are a testament to our collective values. What will next year’s budget say about the Commonwealth?

The Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership is a collective effort of social justice, civil rights, and education advocacy organizations working together to advance equity in the state’s education system.