Randi Weingarten Calls State Budget Crisis a Five Alarm Fire. Why Can’t Most of Us See It?

Last week I was out walking to get some exercise when I saw an old friend who is a retired school superintendent.  Standing a careful six feet away, he greeted me this way: “So, where’s the money going to come from?”  We talked for a minute or two, and as we parted, he asked again: “So where’s the money going to come from?”

If you read NY Times‘ reporter, Erica Green’s article about last Wednesday’s meeting of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, you will see that the topic of money and budgets threads quietly underneath the Senators’ conversation, but you’ll mostly read about a discussion of the logistics of opening school: “Across the country, school leaders are beginning to roll out plans to welcome more than 50 million students back, which include procuring 50 million masks; flooding schools with nurses, aides and counselors; and staggering schedules to minimize class size.  But the high-dollar demands to meet public health guidelines and make up for setbacks that have disproportionately affected low-income students, students of color and those with disabilities could cripple their budgets.”

Green continues, citing data provided by the American Association of School Administrators: “The School Superintendents Association has estimated that districts would incur nearly $1.8 million in costs to meet federal health guidelines, from $640 for no-touch thermometers (one per school) to $448,000 for additional custodial staff; that is just for an average school district of about 3,700 students.”

Half way through her coverage of the Senate HELP Committee’s hearing, Green slides into the meat of the story: “The American Federation of Teachers on Wednesday released a cost analysis estimating that schools would need $116.5 billion for instructional staff, distance learning, before-and after-school care and transportation.  In another report released Wednesday, the National Education Association estimated that without federal relief, the education system would lose 1.9 million education jobs.  The American Federation of Teachers said budget cuts had already cost local public education systems more than 750,000 jobs, twice what they lost during the recession of 2008.”

What is very confusing about Green’s article is that she has buried the lede.  Her NY Times‘ report on problems for public schools neglects to locate the logistical challenges of opening schools during the pandemic in the context of an already alarming education budget crisis across all the states. Very kindly, however, Green provides links to those two important reports.

The American Federation of Teachers begins: “The safe and effective reopening of America’s schools requires two types of federal action. First, it requires a substantial federal investment to address the impact of budget cuts that have already cost local public education systems more than 750,000 jobs, twice what they lost during the Great Recession. And second, it requires a federal investment to help pay for the costs of a safe reopening. We estimate that, for public schools, this second piece will cost at least $116.5 billion… A recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute shows that public education started the school year employing 60,000 fewer staff than prior to the Great Recession.  New numbers from the census show, when adjusting for inflation and enrollment growth, that 20 states still spend less on K-12 education than before the recession. We entered the current crisis without having recovered from the last.”

Green also shares a link to the National Education Association’s concise graphic analysis covering the fiscal condition of all the states and the impact of the recession on their public schools. Once you look at the data, all the rest will fall into place. My retired superintendent friend named the problem: “So, where’s the money going to come from?”

If you examine the National Education Association’s analysis carefully (I printed out a copy for myself to make it easier to scan all the columns covering all the states.), you will grasp what your own state’s budget collapse—resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic job losses and business shutdowns—is going to mean for your state’s public schools during the next three years.  You will also understand what the state budget crisis—aggregated across the states—is going to mean over Fiscal Years 2020, 2021, and 2222, for the children attending our nation’s 98,000 public schools. NEA’s first three columns explain (1) the “estimated decline in state general fund revenues” in each state as tax dollars decline, (2) the “estimated decline in (each state’s)  support for elementary and secondary education and higher education” as state budgets collapse, and (3) the “potential job losses” in each state’s K-12 public education and public colleges and universities as state funding is seriously reduced.

Here is a bit of additional context. Because K-12 public education, defined in all the state constitutions as among each state’s top priorities, makes up a high percentage of all the state budgets, an overall state budget crisis inevitably devastates every state’s public schools. The National Association of State Budget Officers reports: “Elementary and secondary education remained the second largest area of total state spending in fiscal 2019, representing 19.5 percent.  When looking only at general fund spending, elementary and secondary education remains the largest category in fiscal 2019, representing 35.6 percent of general fund expenditures….”

Find yourself a magnifying glass to read the National Education Association’s analysis at the end of the table. The main point is crystal clear: “States are experiencing a precipitous decline in revenues as a result of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Using current economic projections, NEA has analyzed the impact on state revenues over three fiscal years—2020, 2021, and 2022—and the corresponding impact it will have on the ability of states to fund public education. NEA estimates that without additional federal emergency aid, state general fund revenues in support of education could fall by about $200 billion affecting about one-fifth of the education workforce after accounting for the use of state rainy day funds and funding available under the CARES Act.”

The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed the HEROES Act, which promises additional relief for state budgets. NEA explains how the HEROES Act, if enacted by the U.S. Senate—would support PreK-12 public schools: “The HEROES Act, which has passed the House, would help stem some of the state revenue shortfall. It includes $90 billion for a State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) dedicated to education, to remain available until September 30, 2022, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus. The Secretary of Education would make grants to the Governor of each State for support of elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education and, as applicable, early childhood education programs and services. States would be required to allocate 65 percent of the funds received as subgrants to local educational agencies in proportion to the amount of funds the local educational agencies received under part A of Title I of the ESEA in the most recent fiscal year…  States would retain 5 percent to support statewide elementary, secondary, and postsecondary activities. The grants to states under the SFSF are intended to maintain or restore State and local fiscal support for elementary, secondary and postsecondary education. A local educational agency, State institution of higher education, or other entity that receives funds must, to the greatest extent practicable, continue to pay its employees and contractors during the period of any disruptions or closures related to coronavirus.  Funds may be used to support hourly workers, such as education support professionals, classified school employees, and adjunct and contingent faculty. NEA estimates that the SFSF would restore or save at least 825,000 jobs in elementary and secondary and higher education… As importantly, the HEROES Act includes $915 billion in other aid to state, local, territory, and tribal governments that could be used to support public education and backfill revenue needed to support other critical services upon which students and their families rely. This aid would also relieve the pressure on states to reduce their support for public education.”

When it comes to next school year, the real issue is going to be ensuring there are enough adults in America’s schools to supervise children and adolescents, to serve them lunch, to keep the buildings clean enough to prevent the spread of the virus, and to drive the school buses.  Schools will need enough school nurses during a pandemic health crisis, enough counselors, school psychologists, and social workers to support children and families who have been struggling with isolation and economic challenges, and enough librarians to excite children about reading books they may have forgotten about. Most important, schools will need enough teachers to make children secure after months of separation, to help them catch up, to support students’ social skills, and to stimulate them to think, imagine, and learn together.  And public schools will neither be able to serve children well nor protect social distancing if class size grows to 40 students.

You will remember that during 2018 and 2019, #Red4Ed schoolteachers went on strike across a number of states and urban school districts to demand that states address school staffing shortages that— a decade after the Great Recession in 2008—remained below pre-recession staffing levels.  All the experts predict that the current recession will be deeper and more devastating to public schools. And like the 2008 Great Recession, the COVID-19 recession will hurt most severely the school districts which serve masses of very poor children; these are the school districts which struggle to raise local property tax dollars and which depend most on state assistance. Please do look carefully at the NEA’s new report.  Our children’s experience in the coming years will be shaped by how Congress responds to the data NEA presents.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten calls the drop in state budgets a national emergency: “This is a five-alarm fire. Since late April we have been exploring ways to safely reopen school buildings in the fall. Our children need it, and our families deserve it. Our educators want it, and the economy won’t recover without it. But if schools can’t get the money they need to safely reopen, then they won’t reopen, period.”

The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed the HEROES Act. The bill awaits action in the U.S. Senate, but Senator Mitch McConnell doesn’t seem to think there is any urgency.

5 thoughts on “Randi Weingarten Calls State Budget Crisis a Five Alarm Fire. Why Can’t Most of Us See It?

  1. Your final sentence tells us the painful moment of reckoning.
    We are in a 5 alarm fire/crisis. And your thorough description of the details rings the bell!
    I learned a lot from this analysis, something i know, or sorta know, but you connect all the dots!
    It is well organized by a past history in education of
    fiscal austerity,
    Pandemic safety requirements,
    and monumental state budget (taxes) losses due to the virus..
    (Put that on top of Kasich’s massive cuts to the state of Ohio’s taxes that undermined state funding of public schools, putting more pressure on local school districts to pass their own levies, to stay afloat!)
    We become/are what we labor for.
    In neoliberal capitalism, who we are is what we fund with our taxes.
    And the long corporate giveaways/subsidies under a mass rush to the bottom by pitting city against city (or suburb against city or suburb) or state against state, or country against country for business…..Those chickens are coming home to roost, as there are seemingly no hens left in the coop.
    I want to wail, weep and organize!
    because black students will be the most hurt, and all those other students in greatest need,
    in so many cities left poor by endless corporate tax giveaways and desertions.
    This is the structural racism that has hit the streets in policing and the uprisings
    (Hope resides in our individual and collective action, in those uprisings and bringing their power to fundamental and detailed transformations.)

    Thanks, Jan, for sounding the alarm that the 5-alarm fire/crisis is happening right now!
    And that the US Senate has become the crucible for this large moment of choice for life or death of US education in the most human terms we can understand: legislation.

  2. Excellently timed post. We do not have a great history of responding to what it takes to have a successful society. We have been more concerned historically with what it takes to have successful (read successful accumulators of wealth) individuals. While the countries that seem to have what we are missing – i.e., affordable health care, universally accessible and equitable education, secure retirement incomes, etc. – typically have a relatively even distribution of public and private wealth (50/50), we continue to assume/believe it is possible to maintain a healthy society when ownership of private wealth hovers around 75% and public wealth accounts for approximately 25%. What this translates into is that, even when there is a need for the infusion of investment in public institutions, there is an insufficient supply of such money – i.e., where will the money for a massive infusion of dollars to offset the costs of safeguarding the health of our children as they return to school come from? What if “austerity economics” has created an economy in which, even when social investment is deemed essential, we have placed the necessary resources not in the hands of state or federal government but in the hands of the trillionaire class and, concurrently, continue to refuse to consider tax policies which might result in a more effective distribution.

  3. Pingback: Federal CARES Act Public Education Relief Dollars Quietly Flow into the Coffers of Charter Schools and Private Schools | janresseger

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