Public Schools Can’t Open Safely Unless Congress Provides Fiscal Relief

Back in session this week following a two-week, July 4th recess, Congress must now pass emergency fiscal relief for states and local school districts to make it safe for students and their teachers to return to school this fall. To rescue school districts whose funding has already begun to erode as the recession has undermined state budgets, more federal dollars are necessary even to ensure that school systems can operate hybrid, in-person/online school opening plans—bringing in students on a staggered schedule two or three days each week to protect social distancing in classrooms and on buses.

President Donald Trump has demanded that all schools open full-time, five days a week for every student.  A new report from the American Federation of Teachers explains why such an expectation is dangerously unrealistic, especially considering that any money appropriated in late July or early August won’t arrive soon enough for school districts to repair ventilation systems, secure temporary portable classroom space, or hire a sufficient number of teachers to divide all classes in half: “Take a look at what it would cost just to do what Trump wants: fully accommodating every child in public schools for face-to-face instruction.  Assuming virus spread is tackled so that the infection rate is low enough that experts deem it safe, and assuming there are ongoing testing and contact tracing protocols, it would potentially require a half-trillion dollars to safely reopen public schools at that scale.  That means 47 percent more classrooms to ensure that students are 6 feet apart.  And it means as many as 47 percent more instructors, which would cost approximately $140 billion in salary and benefits.  If half of those additional teachers required portable classrooms, it might cost more than $115 billion…  Even if there were political will to spend that money, we have already missed the chance to make the broadest progress toward that goal, with no way to find the teachers, the classroom capacity, or the buses needed by the time fall semester starts.  The call to do this is unserious and deters from what can be done, which is to provide supports for the fullest and safest possible reopening, whether it is in-person, hybrid, or online.  In many places that hybrid model will include students attending classes part of the week in person.”

The American Federation of Teachers “calculates the need to fill a gaping $93.5 billion preK-12 funding gap and $45 billion higher education funding shortfall caused by the country’s economic slump.  And it identifies an additional $116.5 billion to equip schools and colleges with physical distancing masks, Plexiglas, hand-washing stations, cleaning supplies, test kits, and other resources like ventilation retrofits… If the federal government fails to prioritize aid to state and local governments and direct assistance to public schools and colleges, the report finds nearly 1.4 million public education jobs will be lost and schools throughout the country will be forced to meet remotely indefinitely.”

Politico reported Monday that a new COVID-19 relief package will be the top priority for Congress as it moves toward another recess in three weeks: “The House and Senate return Monday to face a critical three-week stretch ahead of the August recess, with both chambers under immense pressure to deliver another trillion dollar-plus relief package amid an alarming rise in coronavirus cases… Both sides are expected to begin negotiations on a fifth tranche of emergency aid in the coming days, with a shared goal of signing something into law within three weeks.  The House is currently slated to depart for recess on July 31, with the Senate following the week after, though House members have been advised not to make plans the first week of August.  For now, both sides have been largely posturing with little to no attempts at negotiation.  Even before the start of formal talks, congressional leaders have drawn fierce battle lines about their own priorities for the package—an ominous sign for what’s expected to be the most difficult set of negotiations so far in Congress’ pandemic response.  With the economy sputtering and the fate of millions of schoolchildren uncertain this fall, GOP leaders say they plan to prioritize legal protections for businesses that reopen during the pandemic, as well as money to help schools that plan to welcome students back in person… Further complicating the talks, the White House said Friday it will push for 10 percent of the next coronavirus relief package to be set aside for ‘non-public schools and education freedom scholarships.'”

Why are public schools  across all the states facing a catastrophic budget crisis? In its new report, the American Federation of Teachers explains: “In 2017, state and local governments spent $660 billion on K-12 education, which was 21.5 percent of all direct general fund expenditures. The bulk of this education funding comes from state (47 percent) and local government (45 percent) sources, with the rest coming from Congress.  State funding sources are typically seen as most immediately threatened by the COVID-19 downturn.  But there is disturbing data in the housing market that speaks to coming instability for local property taxes as well.  In July, 30 percent of all homeowners and 36 percent of all renters did not make their full, on-time housing payment .  The virus is also going to affect real estate values in other ways, lowering some property values, although the extent of this dynamic still has not become clear.”

Job losses in public school districts—whose budgets depend solely on tax dollars—are already occurring: “Since February, there have been 667,000 jobs lost in the Bureau of Labor Statistics category ‘Local Government Education,’ which contains every school district in the nation.  This is almost double the job losses of the Great Recession.”  The American Federation of Teachers considers also the loss of jobs in public higher education and concludes: “Taken together, we estimate that next year’s budget gap could mean a total of 1,357,000 jobs lost in public education, which is 432,000 more than have already been lost… For K-12 education alone, the combined cost of restoring these jobs and securing most of the elements of a safe reopening is just over $204 billion… One of the reasons the situation we face is dire is because we did a poor job of supporting state and services during the Great Recession, leaving them weaker than they should be.”

This is not the time for Congress to engage in austerity budgeting at the expense of our children. In discussions of federal COVID-19 relief bills, we are warned by the deficit hawks that it is dangerous for the federal government to increase the federal debt by borrowing.  The Economic Policy Institute’s Josh Bivins discounts this argument in a new brief: “As always, there are some who seem more concerned about the rise in federal budget deficits and public debt than by the rise in joblessness and losses of income generated by the shock.  But prioritizing the restraint of debt in coming years over the restoration of pre-crisis employment rates is bad economics… When the economy has resources—particularly willing workers—that are unemployed simply because firms do not expect enough paying customers to justify putting more resources into producing goods and services, then the economy’s growth is constrained by demand…The economic shock of the coronavirus and the public health measures undertaken to combat it are unique in their specifics, but not actually all that different from the general cause of all other recessions.  They constitute a mammoth negative shock to aggregate demand.  Basically, all at once, tens of millions of Americans stopped spending money on a whole range of economic outputs… Because one person’s spending is another person’s income, this type of shock almost always inevitably leads to another spending pullback…. The proper response to this sudden and mammoth negative shock to demand is straightforward… First maintain spending power… during the lockdown period by providing relief…. Second, foster a rapid recovery by boosting aggregate demand….” (emphasis in original)

It is interesting to note that ensuring that public education employees—schoolteachers, counselors, school nurses, school psychologists, school social workers, certified librarians along with school principals and school superintendents—can stay employed in the schools that serve our 50 million students in elementary, middle and high schools is in itself a stimulus to the economy. These people multiply the economic effect of our public investment by spending their salaries in their local communities. Last week, Reuters reporter David Lawder explained how his works:  “K-12 schools are a cornerstone of the economy, and a massive jobs engine.  Nearly 51 million American kids attend public elementary, middle, and high schools compared to about six million in private schools… With a total workforce of about eight million Americans before the pandemic, kindergarten through 12th grade public education is also one of the largest U.S. employment sectors, exceeding construction, hospitals, finance, and insurance and transportation and warehousing. Total expenditures for these schools were $721 billion during the 2018 fiscal year…. That is more than the U.S. Defense Department’s $671 billion budget that year, or the Pentagon’s $705 billion request for fiscal 2021… The Department of Education says public school spending is heavily skewed toward salaries and benefits, which made up 80% of the per-pupil total spending of $12, 612 in 2018. About 11% goes to purchased services and 7% to supplies. Maintaining these jobs is particularly important for local communities because of the economic multiplier effect, said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. That $721 billion in public school spending in 2018 translated to about $1.08 trillion in direct GDP output, she calculates, not including the economic benefits of better-educated workers.”

Getting our nation’s children and adolescents back in school ought to be the top priority for Congress right now. Their current well-being and their collective future depend on it. The economic arguments described in this post are also among the reasons why, as the American Federation of Teachers recommends, Congress needs to pass a COVID-19 relief bill that includes the essential dollars in the HEROES Act which the House passed on May 15 and why Congress should also pass the provisions in a bill introduced in the Senate by Patty Murray (D-WA) to support K-12 school reopening and childcare.

5 thoughts on “Public Schools Can’t Open Safely Unless Congress Provides Fiscal Relief

  1. Pingback: Jan Resseger: If Trump Wants Schools to Open, Why Won’t He Pay for It? | Diane Ravitch's blog

  2. I’m certain that, for many folks, there is great resonance in various analyses of the economic implications of reopening our nation’s schools and, as usual, Jan has done an incredible job of offering the various perspectives on the numerous economic implications. Her post on these implications also sheds light on another aspect… the notion that somewhere there is an acceptable cost in protecting the lives of millions of children. Is it not a sign of something approaching idiocy and societal collapse when (a) we can even think of defining an acceptable level of loss of life for our children, (b) in the face of continued upward spiral of new cases and reported deaths, the congress can actually consider continuing plans for a summer break, (c) the White House folks can propose cuts and slowdowns in the testing “system”, and (d) economic hawks can discuss national debt implications for the “War on Covid-19” while approving without question the funding of countless and endless wars around the globe?

    Here’s a possible Andy Borowitz headline, “Nation’s children are required to wear either a red or blue face mask upon entering the school buildings, according to the party affiliation of their parents.”

  3. Well, not only is the essay above remarkable for its clarity, thoroughness, and analysis (with nuggets of insight), but the comment on it above, has similar resonance.
    Indeed, the article above is clear: even in an economic calculus, public school funding is an economic stimulus. What could be more compelling! And yet…… the uncertainty of it may enlighten us, or rather, help us see the dark cloud looming..
    For, in what world is there not a cost-benefit analysis? Well, in a human one!
    Human life would seem to have an absolute value (even that term, value, has been appropriated in economics), and yet, the history of civilization and the USA seems built otherwise. Or rather, there are two paths: one of calculating costs (economic and multiple) and one not doing so, disciplined in its focus on human life’s and each person’s concrete absoluteness for care.
    Indeed, the US has a long history of being built upon the calculation of human life and economic value: consider slavery and the attempted genocide of the First Nations.
    These things were driven by economics, or by another name, trade (of human beings and consumer goods, e.g., early on, beaver furs).
    So, someone like Malcolm X might say that ‘the chickens are coming home to roost.’ The long history and trajectory of inequity, (of a violence as American as apple pie), of our sins personally and nationally, are coming to fruition.
    The Rev Martin Luther King, Jr, put it more prophetically: our ‘militarism, materialism and racism’ will lead to our destruction’ unless we repent and go in a radically different direction. Consider those three:
    militarism (with interest), it is over a trillion dollars annually (even without describing what we do unto others with that military budges): (no wonder we run gross deficits, with human needs going begging for health care, for environmental transformation)
    materialism: the consumption patterns of the West are destroying our infrastructure (the capitalistic infrastructure), that is our planet
    racism (one does not need to look far to see it at the personal, local and national level, even if appearances occasionally change)
    So, hope, for me, lies two-fold: at the personal level, as i see people so often rising to the moment in a crisis, and on a daily basis, the human opportunity of greeting and need, of empathy and honesty, what we might call hospitality.; Teachers daily do so, as well as all the support staff in education, but it is the common human trait;
    at a larger level. crisis allows for a collective/community to go in a radically different direction. It’s a liminal state in which change can occur; one might say even that it must occur…. because we will destroy ourselves otherwise. (Naomi Klein in the Shock Doctrine describes how this has been done in the negative direction by capitalistic entrepreneurs!)
    That’s what the plague has wrought. Can 330 million people go another way, an opposite direction.?.
    Can political leaders?
    If not the plague? then climate disaster?
    Time is running out because time does finally bring some things to fruition,…

  4. Thank you Jan for drawing attention to the detail in the AFT’s statements and linking those to other sources of information. I do not have much hope for the HEROES Act being brought forward for action, but it is certainly an important effort. The reopening plans for many schools are not waiting for federal support, and that means that teachers are under extreme pressure to work with plans that may well be shortlived, especially if the virus has not flatlined in or near the district.

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