Minnesota children are officially back to school after the 2020-2021 school year, which was wrought with sacrifices. Children lost hundreds of hours of learning with their teachers and peers. Educators lost opportunities to connect with children, and to bolster those who needed it. The sacrifices bring about mass uncertainty. We do not know how children will adapt to being back in the classroom or how far behind they really are.
What we do know is that the coronavirus pandemic and pandemic schooling are behind mass learning loss, which disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous, and people of color children (BIPOC). Nationwide, children on average were about five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading by the end of last school year. In math, children that attended in majority Black schools ended the year with six months of unfinished learning, children in low-income schools with seven. Moreover, Black, Latinx and Asian students were also 15 percentage points more likely to live in remote-only school districts, with white children far more likely to have access to in-person learning which is negatively correlated with learning loss.
That’s a problem for Minnesota because, pre-pandemic, we already had some of the worst education gaps in the country. The pandemic surely made them worse. For example, in the first quarter of the 2020-2021 school year, nearly half of all St. Paul Public School middle and high school students failed a class. Four out of five students enrolled in the St. Paul system identify as BIPOC. American Indian, Black and Hispanic students were nearly three times as likely to have a failing grade than their white peers.
We will not see the full picture of learning loss for a year or several years, as pandemic schooling may continue in the 2021-2022 school year. We must act now to ensure that this picture is worth 1,000 good words. We must do this with transformative, bold policy because the state of Minnesota’s public education system requires it.
Today, the Minnesota State Constitution establishes a right for all Minnesota children to access an adequate and “uniform” system of public education. But adequate will not get us through. Policy must elevate that standard to quality to go beyond just trying to mediate the learning loss of the past year. The Page Amendment will do that.
The Page Amendment will establish a civil right to quality public education, immediately raising the state’s constitutional standard. From then on, equipped with a new civil right, families and children will be empowered to work with legislators to design and implement the policies that will help narrow and eventually close education gaps.
But, we must act now. The Page Amendment is unique because it has bipartisan support, unlike most policies today. We have the opportunity to pass the policy during the 2022 legislative session, and start making dents in the existing and potential education gaps we may see once pandemic schooling is over.
What this year will look like and how students will adapt is uncertain. What is certain is that education gaps were at a crisis-level before the pandemic, and we cannot wait another year to address them. We also know that even if some children are excelling, schools cannot reach their full potential with other students being left behind. Quality education must be reaching all students, and the Page Amendment will help us be able to do that.
Dr. Bernadeia Johnson is the former superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools and professor at Minnesota State University Mankato. She sits on the Our Children MN Board of Directors.
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