Federal school funds should drive innovation and equity

American Rescue Plan offers once-in-a-generation opportunity

MASSACHUSETTS HAS BEEN a leader in education since 1635 when Boston opened the nation’s first public school. But we haven’t drastically changed our approach in the last 375 years. We still often rely on teacher-led instruction to seated students (even on Zoom!), all moving in unison to a set schedule. This system was built for the factory floor, not a rapidly advancing high-tech economy. While last year brought tremendous hardship, it also spurred previously unthinkable innovation in education. Let’s take this moment to imagine a future beyond getting back to normal—one that opens up opportunities for all of Massachusetts’ students.

President Biden recently signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act, which provides approximately $165 billion of resources into our education system at a time of desperate need. Massachusetts is due to receive an estimated $1.8 billion over two years for elementary and secondary schools with 90 percent of these funds going directly to local school districts. Local school leaders have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop a more equitable model of schooling while also moving our education system into the 21st century. It’s an opportunity we can’t afford to lose.

And we have already begun to see what this could look like.

Take, for example Campus Without Walls, an initiative championed throughout Boston in partnership with Boston schools and Open Opportunity – Massachusetts, a statewide, cross-sector coalition of over 40 partners. This initiative leverages the power of communities and technology to build a broader education ecosystem by virtually opening up classrooms and education programs to students all across the city, regardless of where they live or what school they attend. This spring, Campus Without Walls will launch partnerships across 15 schools, 13 community-based organizations, and two universities. A student at TechBoston Academy will now be able to take a history class at Fenway High School or vice versa. And with a statewide ambition, eventually a student in Framingham could take an English class taught by an innovative teacher in Lawrence.

Innovations like these can be game-changing with the power to increase students’ access to great teachers, facilitate more diverse and authentic relationships, and support deeper learning by connecting students to schools, universities, employers, and out-of-school time providers throughout their communities and the larger world. Models like Campus Without Walls have the potential to revolutionize education, dismantle de facto school segregation, and open opportunity for young people most historically underserved by our current systems. It knocks the doors wide open for equitable access to opportunity.

These are the kinds of programs that Massachusetts should prioritize with American Rescue Plan funds, so our students come out of the pandemic stronger than before. The tragedy of the past year has shattered school budgets as communities have grappled with costs unimaginable before the pandemic. This reality is most acutely felt in chronically underserved communities. Despite Boston spending millions to provide students with computers, establish wi-fi hotspots, and build online learning platforms, one in five Boston Public School students may have become virtual dropouts.

How this money is spent matters just as much. Using new money to resurrect an outdated model of schooling is an investment in ineffectiveness and inequality. It will threaten our long-term prosperity, not preserve it.

We have seen a paradigm shift in how, where, when, and even what students learn. These changes are far from perfect and many, like full-time remote schooling, are not a long term solution. But they point toward a way forward.

We need to dismantle the barriers—both physical walls and figurative systems—that keep high quality education and resources only accessible to some and entirely out of reach for others.

As the light of the end of the tunnel of this pandemic approaches, let’s not be so quick to get back to normal. Normal was broken, ineffective, and inequitable for many. Our students deserve reimagined education. It’s long overdue and now we have the opportunity, the vision, and resources to do it.

Ayele Shakur, CEO of BUILD.org, and Chad d’Entremont, executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, are co-chairs of Open Opportunity – Massachusetts, a cross-sector coalition of 40 organizations working to dismantle systemic and racial barriers to equal opportunity in education.