Public schools are the linchpin holding together our society’s supports for 50 million children. Public schools are where our children practice learning, computing, critical thinking, imagining; where they develop skills in writing, reading, musicianship, art, and all kinds of sports; and where they learn to respect one another. For children whose economic needs are greatest, public schools provide breakfast and lunch. Many wraparound schools now serve as sites for health and dental care, house after-school and childcare programs, and connect parents with broader social service providers.
After a wait of over two months following the U.S. House of Representatives’ May 15, passage of a second COVID-19 relief HEROES Act—which included money to help public schools make safety adjustments to classrooms, buses, and ventilation systems before the fall term and money to shore up the state budgets which provide 47 percent of K-12 public school funding—the Senate refused to compromise. Last week Congress gave up without agreeing on a relief package including needed help for public education. And during the negotiations, President Donald Trump tried to make assistance for public schools contingent upon their immediate reopening despite the explosive spread of COVID-19 across many communities. Trump and members of his administration claim there is plenty of funding unspent from the first COVID-19 relief bill, the CARES Act, if public schools need more money to help them prepare for safely reopening. In fact, however, states have already committed 75 percent of the CARES Act’s Coronavirus Relief Fund. The money available for public schools has been spent or has been promised for costs school districts have already planned.
Much of the discussion during the recent negotiations did center on an issue of importance to children: unemployment benefits to help their parents put food on the table and pay the rent. But what does it say about our culture that the direct needs of America’s children are hardly mentioned in public policy conversations these days? While the President has demanded that all schools open to ensure that parents can work, he never says a word about making children and their teachers safe in schools that, thanks to federal inaction, have not been able to afford adjustments to ensure social distancing. Despite overwhelming evidence that people want to work in an economy with too few jobs, many Republican Senators insist that unemployment benefits make adults lazy and encourage them not to work. The same politicians seem not to have noticed that when parents lose their jobs, their children are the most vulnerable victims of hunger, homelessness, and lack of health care coverage.
After the Great Recession in 2008, the federal government responded with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which awarded money to help states cope with their own budget crises. A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) brief summarizes what happened for public schools: “The last time that states faced a budget crisis, in the wake of the Great Recession of a decade ago, emergency federal aid closed only about one-quarter of state budget shortfalls. Once the aid was gone, states started cutting funding to K-12 schools to help comply with their balanced budget requirements. By 2011, 17 states had cut per-student funding by more than 10 percent. Local school districts responded by cutting teachers, librarians and other staff; scaling back counseling and other services; and even reducing the number of school days. Even by 2014—five years after the Great Recession ended—state support for K-12 schools in most states remained below pre-recession levels. School districts have never recovered from the layoffs they imposed back then. When Covid-19 hit, K-12 schools employed 77,000 fewer teachers and other workers even though they were teaching 2 million more children….”
CBPP reports that there has been some economic recovery across the states from the recession a decade ago, but many states have never brought student services back to their pre-2008 level: “Nationally, combined state and local school funding per student has finally recovered from the recession. In the 2017 school year, it was $267 above the 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation—a modest 2 percent increase (since 2008). But state funding was still $32 per student below pre-recession levels, while local funding was up $299 (per student).” Translating these facts into their real-world implications, we can see that wealthier school districts with a sufficient property tax base have been able to raise local funding to compensate for an overall reduction in state funding over the decade. But the school districts which serve the poorest students with the greatest needs—the school districts most dependent on state school funding—are operating with less revenue. And, reports CBPP, “In seven states, combined state and local school funding in the 2017 school year was at least 10 percent below (2008) pre-recession levels in inflation-adjusted terms… Florida, the deepest-cutting state, was down 22.7 percent; Arizona 22.6 percent; and Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama, all over 10 percent. In all, 22 states plus the District of Columbia remained below pre-recession levels.” (Emphasis is mine.) Now all of these states are experiencing an added severe drop in tax revenue due to the new COVID-19 recession. And because the U.S. has not contained the pandemic, many school districts this fall are forced to open only on-line. Because of the lack of federal assistance to school districts, some of the poorest school districts will still be unable to ensure that all children have the necessary equipment and broadband access to participate fully in online schooling like their more privileged peers.
First Focus on Children’s president, Bruce Lesley warns America not to forget our children: “(A)t key moments when children need politicians to step up or speak out to promote or protect their needs or best interest, kids are far too often treated as an afterthought, used as a bargaining chip in political negotiations, or shockingly, intentionally harmed… First Focus on Children’s analysis finds that the domestic share of the federal budget dropped from 8.19 percent in President Obama’s last year in office in 2016 to just 7.48 percent in 2020—a 9 percent reduction. Furthermore, if President Trump’s proposed FY 2021 budget had been enacted, federal investments in children would have declined by another $21 billion on an inflation-adjusted basis… One former senator told me that weeks often go by without children even being mentioned in the halls of Congress.”
Lesley continues: “The failures to address the needs of children in this pandemic and economic recession are instructive. For months, some leaders dismissed the needs of children and even argued children were immune from harm, when the facts clearly dispelled that myth. Every aspect of the lives of children was being disrupted and it took months before many of our nation’s leaders even took notice… It is clear that children have been treated as an afterthought and are the victims of neglect by some of our nation’s political leaders.” Even before the pandemic, “Shockingly, at First Focus Campaign for Children, we could not identify a single vote in the U.S. Senate during all of 2019 that was specific to improving the lives of children. NOT ONE.”
Here we are, in the month when the fall public school term traditionally opens. Lesley condemns Congress and the President: “Now some of those leaders have suddenly realized that schools and child care are critical needs in the economy and that the needs of children should have been a priority all along. As child advocates can attest, it is all too little, too late. The President, whose policies have largely ignored or harmed children, is demanding that schools and child care centers reopen without having taken the necessary public health measures to make them safe to reopen, without having provided schools and child care centers the necessary resources and support to safely reopen, and with no real plan… All across our vast country, our nation’s educators that care for our children and parents are being asked to deal with a lose-lose proposition.”
If the effects of the last recession are any guide, the impact of ignoring the needs of America’s children will be long lasting. Last week C. Kirabo Jackson, a social policy professor at Northwestern University and two colleagues released a study about the effect on school achievement nationwide of the Great Recession and the 2009, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus bill. They report that school districts did not make the greatest cuts in programs and operating expenses; instead they put off capital expenses—building maintenance and repairs. “Even so, districts still made substantial cuts to instructional spending. For every dollar in spending cuts, we find districts reduced instructional spending by $0.45, on average. Reductions in payroll costs for instructional employees account for roughly half of that amount… Districts trimmed their spending on payroll across the board, taking particular aim at the guidance office. We look at overall staff counts and find that, on average, a $1,000 decline in spending was associated with hiring 3.7 percent fewer teachers, 5.3 percent fewer instructional aides, 3.3 percent fewer library staff members, and 12 percent fewer guidance counselors. This led to roughly 0.3 more students per teacher and 80 more students per guidance counselor… (T)he spending declines that followed the Great Recession halted a five-decade-long increase in student test scores in reading and math, kicking off what some have called a ‘lost decade’ in terms of student achievement… (T)hose cuts also were associated with slower rates of college-going among students on track to become first-time college freshmen, possibly undermining some students’ momentum during a critical moment of transition from K-12 to higher education…”