Senate Republicans Once Again Refuse to Help States and Their Local School Districts

Last week, the Republican dominated U.S. Senate once again failed to pass its latest version of a second stimulus bill to help alleviate the recession that is undermining the economy, the lives of individuals, and institutions like public schools. The Republicans called their bill a skinny (minimal) bill, and everybody knew it wasn’t going to pass, but the consequences are likely to be serious.  At least, by sinking the bill, Congress did not pass the Betsy DeVos favorite, a tuition tax credit Freedom Scholarship program inserted at the last minute by Sen. Ted Cruz.

The Washington Post’s Erica Werner, Seung Min Kim and Tony Romm explain last week’s Senate action: “The failed GOP bill would have authorized new money for small businesses, coronavirus testing and schools, and $300 in enhanced weekly enhanced unemployment benefits. The measure included roughly $650 billion in total spending, but it would repurpose roughly $350 billion in previously approved spending, bringing the tally of new funding to around $300 billion. The measure did not include a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks for individual Americans, even though that’s something the White House supports. It also excluded any new money for cities and states, a top Democratic priority as municipal governments face the prospect of mass layoffs because of plunging tax revenue. And it contained some conservative priorities that Democrats dismissed as unacceptable ‘poison pills’ including liability protections for businesses and a tax credit aimed at helping students attend private schools.”

There is speculation that Congress won’t be able to agree on any additional stimulus prior to the election. Under pressure from Democratic members of the House to pass something before November 3rd to assist their constituents, Nancy Pelosi declared yesterday that she’ll keep the House in session until there is a bill to consider. Congress has scheduled its pre-election recess to begin on October 2, but the Washington Post clarified later that, according to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, “lawmakers would not actually remain in Washington beyond their scheduled recess… and instead would be required to be on call in case they must return.” The House passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act in mid-May as the statement of House Democratic priorities, and Pelosi has refused to compromise away what Democrats identified as essential programs. Senate Republicans, by contrast, came up with a $1 trillion draft, and then dropped it to $640 billion with $350 billion of that repurposed from previous allocations (presumably the CARES Act, passed in March). Republican Senators seem willing to avoid considering any additional fiscal stimulus.

This blog has worried about Congressional Republican unwillingness to pass additional assistance for state and local governments. Mark Weber explains why. Weber, who blogs at Jersey Jazzman, is a teacher, a musician and also a Ph.D. in school finance: “The Senate’s complete abdication to do anything serous about the economy might lead you to believe that Republicans don’t believe that public schools are facing a fiscal crisis.  But that’s not entirely true.  Even though the GOP school aid proposal is incredibly weak, the very fact that Republicans are proposing aid to schools is a tacit acknowledgement that they are in financial trouble. But, as usual, Republicans are proposing an inadequate solution to a very real problem. Part of this inadequacy is due to the insistence of ideologues on privileging private schools when coming up with an aid package… But a big part is due to a fundamental misunderstanding—likely a deliberate misunderstanding—of how schools get their revenue. Schools rely heavily on their states for funding—but the Republicans are refusing to provide fiscal relief for the states.  Let me put this as clearly as I can: Fiscal relief for states is fiscal relief for schools… Historically, federal revenues accounted for between 7 to 13 percent of total K-12 funding…. The biggest sources of funding for K-12 schools have been state and local revenue… (E)ach accounts for about half of the remainder after separating out federal funding. Of course, that varies considerably from state to state… But even in the states where districts rely the least on state funding—Missouri, Nebraska and New Hampshire—state funding still accounts for a third of revenues. In the majority of states, half of more of all revenues for schools come from the states themselves. Funding schools is actually one of the primary fiscal activities of the states.” (emphasis in the original)

In a recent brief, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Senior Vice President for Federal Policy and Program Development, Sharon Parrot identifies three primary reasons why Congress needs to pass further economic stimulus: “The latest data on hardship, the economy, and state and local budgets make clear a much stronger package is essential. Hardship levels are extremely high. Some 29 million adults reported that their household didn’t get enough to eat, and nearly 15 million adults reported being behind on rent…. Some 19 million children—fully 1 in 4—lived in a household in which people weren’t getting enough to eat, that was behind on the rent or mortgage, or both…. Job losses are high, particularly for lower -paid workers. While the unemployment rate fell in August, the economy still has 11.5 million fewer jobs than in February… States and localities face deep budget shortfalls.  States across the nation, with governors of both parties, face large shortfalls in this fiscal year, which in most states started July 1. States and localities have started making cuts—indeed, they cut 1.1 million jobs between February and August, about 60 percent of them in K-12 and higher education. These job losses far exceed those during the Great Recession of a decade ago and its aftermath. Of particular concern, many states are waiting to make more and substantially deeper cuts….” (emphasis in the original)

Last week, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Deputy Director of State Policy Research Wesley Tharpe explained specifically how the COVID-19 driven recession is affecting public K-12 and higher education this fall: “The harsh recession and deep state budget crisis triggered by COVID-19 are causing sizable public-sector job losses, especially in K-12 and higher education… As of August, about 1.1 million public-sector workers had lost their jobs since February, an estimated 668,000 (59 percent) of them in education.  About 462,000 of the lost education jobs were in K-12 schools, with most of the rest in colleges and universities… The initial cuts in the spring fell hard on educational workers. Massachusetts school districts sent layoff or nonrenewal notices to more than 2,000 educators (the vast majority of them teachers…); Minnesota school districts sent home hundreds of educators and assistants…; and New York City furloughed about 14,000 school bus drivers and related workers. Half of the lost K-12 jobs in March and April were among special education teachers, tutors, and teaching assistants…; large losses also occurred among counselors, nurses, janitors and maintenance workers…  To be sure, some staffing reductions in education would have occurred even in normal times, as local districts and institutions of higher learning routinely reduce hours or furlough certain support workers—such as counselors and bus drivers—over the summer.  But the scope of the job loss this year was huge—far beyond any normal seasonal variation. As of August, nearly 700,000 fewer people were working in state and local education nationwide than in the same month last year… (M)any states and localities have already cut K-12 spending—by more than $500 million in Colorado and nearly $1 billion in Georgia, for example… (M)ost school districts are operating this fall in a partial or entirely virtual environment, which has reduced the need for people like cafeteria workers or bus drivers but imposed costs in other areas, such as technology.  Furloughing those workers may be helping districts avoid deeper cuts in other areas right now but, when districts call them back, they’ll face renewed pressure to cut elsewhere—such as by reducing teacher positions or cutting enrichment activities—unless more federal aid is forthcoming.”

There are lessons to be learned from what happened to education spending in the Great Recession a decade ago.  Last month C. Kirabo Jackson, a social policy professor at Northwestern University and two colleagues released a study of the decade-long effects of the recession on school achievement nationwide despite federal stimulus in the form of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  School districts made the greatest cuts by putting off capital expenses like 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…”

Will Congress ignore these realities and fail to pass a stimulus package including assistance for the states and their public schools?  Our children’s future rests on this question.

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