2022 – California’s Recovery with Equity

Pam Sornson, JD

January 4, 2021

Question: how does a state overcome pandemic-generated barriers to achieve a better standard of education for all of its residents? Answer: by changing its perspective. Recasting ‘challenges’ as ‘opportunities’ opens eyes and minds to possibilities that may not have been apparent through the previously clouded lens. By pivoting its attitude toward a post-COVID economy from ‘bleak’ to ‘bright,’ the state of California intends to repair and rebound after COVID by incorporating remedies for social justice inequities into its economic growth plan. The strategy is called ‘Recovery With Equity,’ and it promises equity-based guideposts for schools and students that address evolving concerns arising from both the flattened economy and the demand for a fairer, more just society.


Designed By Experts

A collection of higher education experts, educators, think tank denizens, and industry and administrative leaders comprised the ‘California Higher Education Recovery with Equity Taskforce’ that convened in summer 2020. One of their tasks was to examine the state’s challenges as it works toward recovering from COVID-19. The other task was to address the long-hidden practices that perpetuate biases and hamper the educational and career ambitions of too many people.

Taskforce members brought a broad scope of perspectives to the project. The individual experiences and wisdom of non-profit organization leaders, civil servants, and industry builders combined to develop recommendations that will advance the strategy’s four guiding principles:

Foster inclusive institutions – by rethinking educational cultures and practices to support all learners, especially those that face inequitable barriers.

Simplify support strategies to stabilize all students – by reorganizing existing and new support services and options that meet every learner’s basic and educational needs.

Build in student transition processes – by offering technological and academic guidance in college preparation processes.

Streamline pathways to career success – by developing an integrated, state-wide system to facilitate easy entry, access, and completion of programs and degrees.

Each principle encompasses an overarching goal that the strategy intends to achieve. Each goal is designed to both address the inequities of past practices while generating a path into the new economy. And each goal is expected to provide the state’s higher education students with the supports, opportunities, and directions they need to thrive in the emerging, post-COVID economy.


Focused on Where the Need is Greatest

And many of those overlooked students will need help. Recent data indicates that California is experiencing significant economic and social distress caused by both the ongoing pandemic and its less than optimal history of discrimination. Decades of intentional and unintentional biases have left whole communities without the resources they need to improve their economic foundations, and those gaps have exacerbated the damages caused by the pandemic:

Right now, California has the fifth-highest level of unemployment in the country.

The San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys are suffering unemployment levels that equal those of the Great Depression, at 29% and 27%, respectively.

Communities of color are most heavily impacted. Unemployment rates in the Black and Latinx populations are higher than before COVID-19, at 8.2% and 7.9%, respectively.

Perhaps most concerning: 99% of the state’s Black community with a high school diploma or less filed for unemployment benefits in 2020.

Without change, those communities will continue to suffer while adding additional burden to the state by requiring additional social support benefits.


Embracing ‘New’ Resources

Remarkably, the state is focused on building its emerging economy using untapped resources that have not been developed before. The combined ‘one-two’ punch of COVID and the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement shone a bright light on the considerable damages done by inherently unfair systems that neither provided for nor protected the whole of the state’s population. State residents without access to quality, career-based education opportunities are prevented from pursuing their best future and contributing to the economic success of their community. Instead, often, they were compelled to seek social services supports, which added a financial burden to the state. And the pandemic just escalated the magnitude of the situation. Leaving these systems in place would perpetuate those adverse outcomes to the detriment of the individual resident, their social community, and the entire state.

The Taskforce has embraced this unique moment in time to redirect existing processes to reduce these inequities and instead build those untapped resources into the foundation of California’s thriving post-COVID future. The group noted that the existing systems ignore the talents, energy, and creativity of all of California’s residents. The pandemic has widened the gap that separates these populations and reduces their ability to contribute. Further, the Taskforce noted that the skills, talents, and insights of these communities will be critical to the state’s success if it intends to achieve its long-term goal of economic stability. And ultimately, the Taskforce recognized that the varied new and evolving economies emerging as the pandemic rolls on will need more skilled workers and contributors than the state can currently muster – it needs the effort and inputs of all its residents to achieve its economic goals. And it sees the state’s education systems – its universities, community colleges, public and private school systems – as the resource development agents that can implement and ultimately accomplish its vision.

In short: California is betting its economic future on education strategies that will overcome its unsavory biased past and embrace the values offered by all of its residents, not just a limited few. To quote its report: “California will thrive when income inequality and disparities of credential and degree attainment by race and geography are eliminated.”


An Open Invitation

To pursue these ambitious goals, the state is inviting every entity with an interest in economic success to participate in the best way they can. Civic leaders, industry leaders and developers, businesses, non-profits, visionaries, etc., are invited to engage with their local and regional education systems so they can play their part in the educational evolution launched by the Recovery with Equity initiative. By doing so, each individual will ensure not only that they will thrive in the post-COVID era but that their community will thrive there, too.


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