Whether it be because of access to technology, being in a caregiver position, or being an essential worker, across school districts it has become clear that while “we’re all in this together,” some students are clearly better equipped for distance learning than others. To assist these students, Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) did not offer any classes for three weeks after closing schools on March 12 in order to develop a distance learning plan and to distribute technology to these students.
To most this seemed to be not only a good decision, but essentially the only choice. However, some disagreed, with criticism coming from parents in school board meetings and journalists. One of the strongest critiques came from University of California (UC) Berkeley law professor Steven Davidoff Solomon, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal of the disparate educational experiences of his twin daughters, one a second-grade student at a private school, the other in BUSD. Davidoff Solomon took aim at BUSD’s claims about equity, suggesting that the district’s concerns for providing the same education to all have resulted in educating no one. Instead, he seemed to argue, educators should just try to teach as many students as possible during these times, whether that leaves the rest behind or not.
As a Berkeley High student, I find this frankly appalling. Our situation is very far from perfect, and I would be lying if I said that I’m not slightly concerned about my education. However, having seen first hand how much hard work my teachers and BUSD administrators have put into their distance learning plan and making the situation as good as it can be for students, it’s horrible to hear that they are being criticized for it, especially for trying to be equitable.
There are many flaws in Davidoff Solomon’s argument, not least the fact that private schools continue to collect tuition from parents, so they have little choice whether to provide teaching. Also, as Berkeley School Board Director Ty Alper pointed this out in a rebuttal on his website, BUSD simply has more students and teachers than any private school, in addition to less funding.
I want to be educated equally to my peers in other schools as much as anyone, and even though I see the flaws in BUSD, I think the best way to fix them is not by complaining or abandoning those less privileged students so that others can succeed, but by working together and supporting teachers and the District in their efforts.
One of the most important factors in public education in California over the years has been Proposition 13, a ballot initiative from 1978 which keeps taxes for long-time property owners extremely low in California. Especially with property values rising, in the Bay Area specifically, it has become increasingly harmful to public education because it decreases tax revenue significantly.
However, 2020 is a key year. This year a ballot measure has been proposed that would remove some of Proposition 13’s tax protections, specifically for businesses, and in turn generate more funding for public school districts.
In this situation the COVID-19 pandemic may be somewhat of an opportunity to change public education in California for the better. The problem of educational disparity, both between private and public schools, and privileged and disadvantaged students, is nothing new, but the pandemic has made it far more visible. Even though this is hopefully the wakeup call we desperately need, it will still not be easy to get this measure on the ballot, to pass it, or to pass other legislation in the future in favor of public education. This is why, even though we are confined in our homes, we need to spread awareness about this measure, encourage others to vote for it, and rather than solely criticize the flaws we see in the system, work towards changing them.