Testimony of Qubilah Huddleston, Education Policy Analyst at the Joint Public Oversight Hearing on the District’s Public Education System After the COVID-19 Pandemic DC Council Special Committee on COVID-10 Pandemic Recovery

Chairperson Allen, Chairperson Gray, and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify. My name is Qubilah Huddleston, and I am a policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI). DCFPI is a nonprofit organization that promotes budget choices to address DC’s racial and economic inequities through independent research and policy recommendations.

Today, DCFPI would like to offer the following recommendations on what DC leaders should prioritize in the public education system as the health pandemic wanes and the city strives towards recovery. DCFPI recommends that the Mayor, DC Council, and education officials: 

  • Reject the idea that public education can simply get back to “normal”;
  • Center anti-racism and equity in student and family recovery efforts;
  • Ensure that students have adequate access to behavioral health and social-emotional learning supports as much as they do academic supports
  • Establish data evaluation goals that focus on strengths, not weaknesses; and,
  • Recognize that achieving educational equity is related to equitable policymaking in other areas that help children thrive (e.g., DC’s safety net).

Getting Back to Normal Will Not Help DC Students

Policymakers and school leaders must decide that the pandemic is the turning point for the city’s public education system. Many education stakeholders understandably want to get back to normal now that the end of the global health pandemic is in sight. Yet, for the District, a return to normalcy means locking inequities into place, with:

  • 29 percent of Black female students scoring proficient on state English and Math exams, compared to 85 percent of their white female peers;
  • 20 percent of Black male students scoring proficient on state English and Math exams, compared to 80 percent of their white male peers;
  • 21 percent of students designated at-risk of academic failure and 20 percent of English learner students being prepared for college and careers; and,
  • Just 8 percent of students with disabilities being prepared for life beyond high school.[1]

DCFPI isn’t sharing these data points to critique the hardworking educators and school leaders who have worked tirelessly to help students learn. Nor is DCFPI ignoring the fact that DC schools have made some progress in recent years, and that there are schools who are helping Black and brown students thrive, despite the negative public narratives that proceed them. Rather, our organization shares these data points to underscore the fact that normalcy sets the bar too low and is not what students deserve or need in this moment. Much of what DC’s public education system provided prior to the pandemic was not working well for students of color, students with disabilities, and students from families with low-incomes. It will take collective reimagining to close gaps and create a more equitable future for all of DC’s students.

Anti-Racism and Equity Must Be at the Center of Recovery Efforts

Policymakers must center anti-racism and equity in their planning for all of DC’s students to recover from an extraordinary year of unpredictability, disruption, and loss. Early evidence shows that the pandemic is exacerbating racial and class disparities in educational opportunities. Twice as many higher-income families (making more than $150,000 annually) were more likely to report that the pandemic had a positive impact on their child’s learning experiences compared to lower-income families (making less than $35,000 annually), according to one national survey.[2] Factors contributing to this difference are wealthier parents’ greater access to alternatives or supplemental supports, including private school, learning pods, tutoring, test prep, and online learning platforms.

Preliminary data on disparate learning outcomes in DC during the pandemic by race, at-risk, and disability status underscore how crucial it is for DC to approach its reopening and recovery plans through an anti-racist and equity lens. In addition, racial and income disparities in whether parents feel it is safe for students to return to school buildings means that local education agencies should offer hybrid learning options at least through the fall.[3] Policymakers should prioritize families of color in planning and decision-making, update policies and practices to address the unique barriers students with disabilities faced during virtual learning, and make budget choices that target additional dollars where they are needed most.

Behavioral Health and Social-Emotional Learning Supports Are Essential to Helping Students Catch Up Academically

While much of the District’s (and national) conversation around why students need to return to in-person learning has centered on “learning loss,” DC must recognize that students have lost so much more than the ability to simplify fractions or identify the main idea of a reading passage. For the last 15 months, most students have learned from home and have been disconnected from the trusting educators, mentors, coaches, and friends that they care about and love. In addition to students suffering trauma from being abruptly separated from their broader support systems, hundreds of students may be grieving parents or family members who died from COVID-19. Nationally, 40,000 children are estimated to have lost a parent to the virus, with Black children accounting for a disproportionate share of children who lost a parent.[4]

Public officials should be innovative and inclusive of the ways they fund schools to welcome students back into classrooms and help them cope with grief and trauma. To address students’ behavioral health needs, DC should, at a minimum, invest $6.4 million in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget to fund the District’s School-Based Behavioral Health program to ensure at least one clinician is in every public school. DC should also invest in trauma-informed care professional development for educators and in Out-of-School-Time programs that are equipped to provide safe, fun academic and social-emotional learning (SEL) environments.

Investments in student and educator mental health should complement additional investments in academic-based interventions. Policymakers should not make students and families choose between additional investments in academic supports or behavioral health or SEL supports—not now, not ever. This will always be a false choice.

DC Needs an Asset-Based Approach to Educational Data

It is imperative that as education officials collect and evaluate data on all the ways the pandemic has harmed students, they also prioritize collecting data that highlight the ways schools have been successful in educating students over the last year.  Too often, data points on “low-performing” schools and the students that attend them are deficit-based, focusing on problems. This has the unintended consequence of spurring policy ideas that are rooted in a savior complex where the main goal is to “save” or “fix” low-income students or students of color. DC’s public education system cannot afford to continue this approach. Schools have faced a number of challenges in educating students virtually amid a pandemic, yet many embraced innovative ways of teaching, and have identified ways to help students become active agents of their own learning.

Educational Equity Is About What Happens Inside and Outside of Classrooms

Achieving educational equity post-pandemic and beyond is about more than what is equitable inside of classrooms. Disparate shares of families with low-incomes have been thrown into deeper economic insecurity compared to their higher-income peers, given that they hold jobs in industries that have been hit hardest by the prolonged recession.[5] And, Black and Latinx residents are still contracting the virus and dying at disproportionate rates.[6] Education equity is intersectional: DC leaders need to ensure that hardest-hit families and communities have access to additional cash, food, housing, employment, and health supports to truly reap the benefits of strong educational investments. Students cannot learn well if their families are at risk of becoming homeless or having their lights shut off. Policymakers should leverage DC’s $8.6 billion local budget and the $3.3 billion in federal relief from the American Recovery Plan to ensure students and their families have the assistance they need and deserve.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify, and I am happy to answer any questions.

[1] Office of the State Superintendent of Education, “2019 DC Statewide Assessment Results,” August 19, 2019.

[2] Adam Newton et al., “School Disrupted: The Impact of COVID-19 on Parent Agency and the K-12 Ecosystem,” May 12, 2021.

[3] Perry Stein, “The Racial Disparities Over Who is Returning to D.C. Classrooms Puts Equity Spotlight on Reopening Plan,” January 30, 2021.

[4] Rachel Kidman et al., “Estimates and Projections of COVID-19 and Parental Death in the US,” JAMA Pediatrics, April 5, 2021.

[5] Elise Gould and Melat Kassa, “Low-wage, low-hours workers were hit hardest in the COVID-19 recession,” May 20, 2021.

[6] DC COVID-19 Data for May 24, 2021.