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Three Big-City Superintendents: We Need a Marshall Plan for Our Schools: Now!

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This article by the superintendents of New York City (Richard Carranza), Chicago (Janice Jackson), and Los Angeles (Austin Beutner) appeared in the Washington Post. For those too young to know, the Marshall Plan was a massive American investment in foreign aid package to rebuild Europe after World War II. It was proposed by General George Marshall.

President-elect Joe Biden has described the crisis in public schools caused by the pandemic as a “national emergency.” As the superintendents of the nation’s three largest public school districts — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — every day we grapple with the challenges that worry not just the president-elect but also the students and families we serve. Our schools, like thousands more across the nation, need help from the federal government, and we need it now.

The challenges school communities face aren’t for lack of effort by principals, teachers, staff, parents and students. Among our three districts, more than 2 million students and hundreds of thousands of educators have worked to transform teaching and learning from the inside out. We’ve seen teachers tackle long division from their kitchens and students debate the Constitution in Spanish from their living rooms.

But the fact is that for many — if not most — children, online and even hybrid education pales in comparison to what’s possible in a classroom led by a great teacher. Too many children are falling behind, threatening not just their individual futures but also America’s global competitiveness.

In Los Angeles Unified, where almost 80 percent of students live in poverty and 82 percent are Latino and African American, Ds and Fs by high school students have increased about 15 percent compared with last year. Meanwhile, reading proficiency in elementary grades has fallen 10 percent. In Illinois, students have lost more than a year of math progress. In New York City, 82 percent of students are children of color, largely from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the virus, suffering tremendous loss and trauma that accompanies kids into the classroom. Across the country, math performance on standardized tests lags the prior year by 5 to 10 percentile points.

It’s time to treat the dire situation facing public school students with the same federal mobilization we have come to expect for other national emergencies, such as floods, wildfires and hurricanes. A major, coordinated nationwide effort — imagine a Marshall Plan for schools — is needed to return children to public schools quickly in the safest way possible.

Schools have shown that they can stay open safely despite community spread of the virus, but that demands the right set of actions, and adequate financial support, to bring students back safely and address the impact of this crisis head on.

Part of the problem is that the Cares Act and subsequent relief packages did not designate public school districts as recipients. Direct federal support for schools must be specific and targeted.

A federal relief package for schools should cover the basic building blocks of a safe, healthy and welcoming school environment so that educators and students can focus exclusively on their mission: high-quality teaching and learning. Funds should be provided directly to public school districts for four essential programs: cleaning and sanitizing of facilities and providing protective equipment; school-based coronavirus testing and contact tracing to help reduce the risk for all in the school community; mental health support for students to address the significant trauma they are facing; and funding for in-person instruction next summer to help students recover from learning losses because of the pandemic. Many local districts have poured resources into these efforts, and places such as New York City have seen success. But it’s simply not sustainable without federal support, and as covid-19 infection rates surge across the country, the pandemic shows no sign of slowing.

The cost of this lifeline for schools — an estimated $125 billion — is less than 20 percent of the total earmarked for the Paycheck Protection Program and about twice the amount provided to airlines. That’s a relatively small price to safely reopen the public schools that give millions of children a shot at the American Dream and their families the chance to get back to work.

Getting children back in the classroom and helping them recover must be addressed by the federal government with the same urgency and commitment as other disasters. Failure to do so will allow a “national emergency” to become a national disgrace that will haunt millions of children for the rest of their lives.

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