Federal Coronavirus Relief Act Will Provide Urgently Needed Money for Public Schools, But Not Nearly Enough

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa contrasts the public education support in the new federal coronavirus stimulus passed this week by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump to the 2009 federal stimulus passed during the Obama administration to address the Great Recession: “Remember the last time we had a big federal stimulus for education? The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ended up being a lot smaller than the coronavirus aid package President Donald Trump signed last week, but it included much more money for education in coping with the impact of the Great Recession. And it also teed up President Barack Obama’s education agenda for his two terms… The majority of the 2009 stabilization cash—$48.6 billion—went out to states by formula for early learning, K-12, and postsecondary education. The remaining money? It was earmarked for Race to the Top and the Investing in What Works and Innovation programs.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Let’s pause for a moment and express gratitude that this week the Trump administration has not earmarked any of what will be desperately needed education relief funding to force states to qualify to participate in a competitive grantmaking process like Race to the Top.  Remember when, just to qualify for money from that particular federal stimulus program, states were forced to grade their teachers according to their students’ test scores and spend the money on rapid school turnaround plans like firing principals and teachers, charterizing schools, and closing schools. In this very significant way, we are all much better off.

But, according to experts, we are also worse off in 2020 than in 2009.  Why?  So far, at least, there is a whole lot less federal money available to meet the challenges public schools will need to address in the current emergency and as they try to get back up and running in the context of what is likely to be a state fiscal crisis. All the things states tax in order to generate the revenue to operate public services are now losing money. Sadly many businesses are closing and many people are losing their jobs. State budgets are likely to be much reduced in the immediate future.

The Education Law Center’s David Sciarra, Jessica Levin, and Wendy Lecker provide the details about the relief package signed into law this week: “In the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Congress has provided $13.5 billion in emergency relief to help local school districts and states respond to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the nation’s public schools… The CARES Act includes a $30.75 billion Education Stabilization Fund to address educational needs stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.  About half of that sum is designated for higher education, $3 billion for a Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, and the rest ($13.5 billion) for an Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.  Most of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund—over $12 billion—will be distributed to Local Education Agencies (LEAs), that is, school districts and charter schools.  States must allocate at least 90% to LEAs as subgrants in the proportion that the LEAs receive Title I funds.  LEAs and states can use their allocations from this Emergency Relief Fund for a wide range of expenditures related to the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures.”

This time, unlike 2009, states and school districts have considerable freedom about how they can spend the funds—any activity authorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, activities to support the needs of low-income students, disabled students, English language learners, racial and ethnic minority students, homeless students and students in the foster care system.  States and school districts can use the federal funds for educational technology, mental health support for students, coordinating long-term closures, providing meals, and creating guidelines to help design online programming during the crisis.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss just published a column by Derek Black, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, in which Black demonstrates all the ways the CARES Act is likely to be inadequate to the challenges public schools face in the upcoming months and even the next several years. Why is the size of the federal CARES Act so important for education?  “A century and a half ago, citizens began approving state constitutions that made public education their states’ first priority. They did it for a very good reason. They knew times like these would come. They knew the foundation of society had to be solid. Education should be the last place, not the first, that states look to make budget cuts in the troubled economic times ahead.”

Black reviews what has happened to state public education funding in the decade following the Great Recession: “During the Great Recession of the late 2000s, Congress hoped that most of a $54 billion set-aside in stimulus funds would be enough to save public school budgets, which had been savaged by state and local governments. It wasn’t enough.  States imposed education cuts so steep that many school budgets still have not fully rebounded… Public schools have long consumed the lion’s share of states’ revenues, and for good reason.  Public education, as the Supreme Court wrote, is ‘the most important function of state and local governments.’ It serves as the ‘foundation of good citizenship’ and ‘democratic society.’ Yet, when the economy faltered in 2008, states made little, if any, attempt to shield schools.  Several states even targeted education for cuts. Wisconsin waged a ‘war’ on teacher benefits. North Carolina and Florida cut education spending from about $10,000 per pupil to $7,000 in just three years… States then refused to replenish education funding even after the economy rebounded. The latest available data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that as late as the 2016-17 school year, education funding remained below pre-recession levels in real dollar terms in most states—sometimes up to 30 percent lower.”

Black continues: “Students paid the price. The overwhelming social science consensus demonstrates that money matters to student achievement and current funding levels are woefully inadequate. A 2008 study revealed that the average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less than they need per student.”

Can the members of our state legislatures have failed to learn the important lesson about how funding cuts after the Great Recession damaged opportunity for so many children?  Sadly, Black believes so: “The first signs of this possibility are here. In recent weeks, three states—Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee—have cut teacher salary increases for this coming year—increases intended at this late date to begin repairing the damage from the last recession. Education Week reports that teachers may lose all of an anticipated pay hike in Kentucky, and legislatures in at least five other states have not acted on salary hikes for educators.”

Sciarra, Levin, and Lecker echo Derek Black’s concerns about the limitations of the CARES Act just passed by Congress and signed by the President: “The $13.5 billion in the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund can help states and districts meet the immediate challenge of providing effective and equitable opportunities for all students, though more funds may be needed even in the short-term. States must also prepare for the likelihood that thousands, if not millions, of students will return to school having experienced significant learning loss. These students will require remedial and ‘compensatory’ services, programs and interventions to make up for the loss and put them academically back on track as quickly as possible. Vulnerable student populations will be most impacted and most in need… Congress must move beyond ’emergency’ relief to ‘mitigation’ funding for K-12 education…. States must not react to the pandemic by enacting deep and harmful state aid cuts, as occurred during and after the 2008 recession.  The harmful impact of those cuts fell on the districts, schools and students with the most need and least ability to make up the funds through increases in local revenue.”

Black warns: “If the current crisis is teaching us anything, it is just how hard and important schools’ jobs are. Kids cannot stare at a screen or book for seven hours a day, nor should they. Parents, employers and hopefully lawmakers are painfully realizing just how central school services are to everyone’s lives and the basic operation of the economy.”

One thought on “Federal Coronavirus Relief Act Will Provide Urgently Needed Money for Public Schools, But Not Nearly Enough

  1. Thanks, Jan, for this analysis. Very helpful. Chicago last week announced it would spend $75 million to equip low income students with upgraded technology. Good news. But it begs the question: Why must it take a public health emergency for disadvantaged children to receive what their more affluent peers in Chicago and in well off suburban districts have had as a matter of course for several years? Why must it take militant teachers going on strike last spring and this fall, or a pandemic this spring, to force policy makers to think about equity in public education, let alone do something about it?

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