The American Rescue Act is a once-in-a generation opportunity for the San Joaquin Valley. Any day now, $500 million in federal dollars for education will begin to arrive at four of the main districts serving Stockton-area students— funding that can be used not only to recover from the pandemic, but to reimagine education in our valley for years to come.
Our elected leaders, civic leaders, and educators must rise to the challenge to make sure we capitalize on this moment.
That half a billion dollars is a big number. But let’s think about it in human terms: the federal government just made the equivalent of a $3,500 down payment on each child in San Joaquin County. That’s a needed and well-deserved increase in funding spent on each child’s education — a number that would have been hard to conceive of just a year ago.
This is money that is urgently needed, if spent correctly.
Before the pandemic exacerbated many of the challenges families in our community face, there was already a great need for investment in our children’s education. As of last year, for example, 35% of socioeconomically disadvantaged students in the county were meeting standards in English and just 23% were doing so in math. Further, only one third of students were graduating with what they needed to attend a state university compared with half of their peers across the state.
So how should this new infusion of funds be best put to use to support our students?
At least 20% of the funding must be spent to address learning loss from the pandemic. What’s needed is a robust investment in proven solutions to address learning loss, including “high-dosage” tutoring, summer academic programming, and extended learning time for the coming school year. Some of this funding should also be allocated to school counselors and other social/emotional support for students who are processing the trauma of the past year. We cannot allow the pandemic to derail our students’ academic futures, and these immediate investments are critically important.
However, a significant portion of these federal dollars are meant for innovation beyond the pandemic, to create more equitable and vibrant school systems for the long term. School district leaders have until 2024 to use this funding. As we look forward to a world beyond Covid-19, we should ask ourselves: how do residents of our valley feel about the current state of the education system, and what would they like to see done differently?
A recent poll of families across the county, conducted by the organization I lead, found that overwhelmingly, voters favor big change: 63% of those surveyed rated the ability of local schools to prepare young people for starting a career and family in San Joaquin County negatively, and a clear majority (53%) said their local schools need “a lot of change.” Residents are also skeptical of the value of a four-year college education, with many believing that the high cost of college will create more problems than benefits in the long run.
What would an education system that San Joaquin residents would be proud of look like?
We believe a comprehensive “cradle-to-career” approach is what our children need. In this vision, every child would have access to free Pre-kindergarten starting at age 3, and a dynamic elementary and secondary education. High schools would be reimagined around the Early College High School model, which allows for students to receive college credit while still in high school and prepare for a career in one of our growing industries here in the San Joaquin Valley. Upon graduating from high school, students would have the opportunity to attend one of our highly-regarded community colleges at low or no cost, or attend a four-year college of their choice at a lower cost if they already have earned college credits while in high school.
And as community and business leaders we are not permitted to sit on the sidelines. High-quality and well-prepared teachers and principals are essential and we as a community must step forward to make San Joaquin County the place where more talent wants to teach and lead. That’s our role as partners with the school systems in the county.
Plans are underway for a Teacher Village to house teachers similar to those in New Jersey and other parts of California, financial supports to undewrite credentialing costs and the launch of TEACH, an early college high school that will grow more local. Civic and business partnerships are part of the momentum building in the area.
This is a big vision, one that can’t be achieved overnight. However, we can make significant strides toward reimagining our school systems through this once-in-a-generation infusion of federal support. It will be critical that every family, in every community, have an opportunity to weigh in on how this funding can be best used.
In the coming weeks and months, we urge leaders to think boldly, and engage our communities deeply, to meet their demand for a better education system. We don’t have a moment to waste.
Don Shalvey is the CEO of San Joaquin A+, a nonprofit organization of educators, business leaders, active citizens and philanthropists based in Stockton that works to improve local schools, and a member of the EdSource board of directors.
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