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Why investing in diversity and raising the grade on school spending is urgent

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Educators in the U.S. have their eyes on the $65.6 billion fund that House Democrats have earmarked for K-12 schools for the 2022 budget, matching the pledge made by the Biden administration in their budget blueprint released in April.

© iStock Why investing in diversity and raising the grade on school spending is urgent

This figure represents a $40 billion increase over the current fiscal year, a major departure from the status quo of increasing funding incrementally. To the general public, such a massive increase in spending probably sounds foolhardy.

Educators like myself, however, are hoping to finally see a significant investment in the nation’s future generation. While some may argue these funds are necessary to combat the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on learning, there are other decades-long issues facing schools that deserve attention as well. Those include overcrowded classrooms, a lack of qualified teachers, and limited diversity among the workforce.

As the House Appropriations Committee bill stands, the current proposal allocates $36 billion for Title 1 grants to local education agencies, which would send over half of the budgeted funds directly to classrooms in schools where they are most desperately needed.

To qualify for Title 1 funding, a school must have a minimum of 40 percent of their students identify as low-income and be eligible to receive free or reduced school lunch. Such funding would allow schools to hire more teachers, thus reducing class sizes and maximizing the impact of classroom instruction.

According to Tim Walker of the National Education Agency (NEA), reducing class sizes in public schools decreases the academic racial achievement gap and leads to earlier identification of student learning disabilities, higher graduation/college attendance rates, and improvements in student behavior.

This seems like it could be a win – adding more teachers in schools where they are most needed. Unfortunately, there are few teachers to hire.

The shortage of K-12 teachers in 2019 was 100,000 and that number has increased with retirements and teachers exiting the profession because of pandemic-related burnout. In response, President Biden has proposed $9 billion in his American Families Plan to combat teacher shortages through training, equipping and diversifying the workforce.

With nearly a third of the proposed $9 billion aimed at recruiting, developing and retaining teachers of color, the nation’s schools may begin to achieve significant gains in student achievement for all populations.

Researchers have found that students of color are positively impacted when they see themselves represented by their teachers. Achievement gaps narrow and graduation rates for minority students increase when teachers of color are in classrooms.

At face value, the statistics regarding teacher diversity look encouraging. In 1987, persons of color accounted for 12 percent of U.S. teachers. By 2017, that percentage had increased to 21 percent.

However, according to the National Center for Education Statistics and the Brown Center on Education Policy, diversity is increasing not because of any strides made in recruiting and retaining teachers of color, but because Generation X and millennials are more diverse than prior generations.

The truth is that diversity of faculty is actually trending downward, which is deeply concerning for tomorrow’s classrooms because 53 percent of American public-school children are persons of color. As of fall 2018, 15 percent of U.S. students were Black and 27 percent were Hispanic, but only 7 percent of teachers were Black and 9 percent were Hispanic.

Before determining how to affect positive changes to increase diversity in the educational workforce, it is urgent to understand why schools lack diversity.

According to The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, schools in urban neighborhoods have extremely high teacher turnover rates, often leading to instability in the classroom and a less qualified workforce. Researchers at have found that the primary reasons students do not see teaching as a worthwhile career are poor pay and lack of opportunities for career development.

The dual impact of low teacher salaries and a lack of resources to effectively do the job has left many American classrooms without qualified personnel.

To recruit and retain teachers of color to the profession, it is critical to improve teacher training and certification programs, provide teachers with the tools required to effectively instruct students, and compensate them at a level that allows them to support themselves and their families.

Providing progressive incentives that would increase with each year would make way for teachers to stay in schools with low socioeconomic communities. It also would increase their expertise in the classroom and lead to better outcomes for students, schools and communities.

As a 30-year veteran educator with 15 years teaching experience in Title 1 schools, I know that students can be successful when they have the right resources and committed educators.

The blueprint for success is available. Many schools selected by their state education agencies for the National ESEA Distinguished Schools Program or to the Department of Education’s Blue Ribbon School Program achieve successes by making substantial progress toward closing achievement gaps and demonstrating excellence in serving diverse populations.

Making great gains in America’s classrooms requires the significant financial commitment that Biden is asking from lawmakers. The proposed $65.6 billion is a small price to pay for better futures of generations of Americans.

Laurie C. Williams, Ph.D., is assistant professor in music education and Faculty Development Fellow at the University of Indianapolis. She is a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.

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