Public Schools Need the Modest Dollars in Current Fiscal Relief Package, But Addressing Educational Injustice Will Take Much More

Happy Holidays! This blog will take a break. Look for a new post on January 4, 2021.

On Sunday, the leaders of the nation’s three largest school districts—Richard Carranza in New York, Austin Beutner in Los Angeles, and Janice Jackson in Chicago—published a column in the Washington Post demanding financial help to enable their school districts to function adequately as they try reopen in person in upcoming months:

“It’s time to treat the dire situation facing public school students with the same federal mobilization we have come to expect for other national emergencies, such as floods, wildfires, and hurricanes. A major, coordinated nationwide effort—imagine a Marshall Plan for schools—is needed to return children to public schools quickly in the safest way possible.”  These school leaders seek funds for sanitizing buildings and providing additional protective equipment for teachers, school-based coronavirus testing and contact tracing, mental health support for students, and funding for extra summer school next year. They estimate that $125 billion in additional relief funding is needed right now.

It would appear that some of that money has been included in the modest relief package Congress is said to hope to pass before shutting down for Christmas. On Monday night, the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein, Mike DeBonis and Seung Min Kim reported on a bipartisan, two part emergency economic relief package: “The bipartisan group unveiled one $748 billion package that includes new unemployment benefits, small business aid and other programs that received broad bipartisan support. The second bill includes the two provisions most divisive among lawmakers—liability protections for firms and roughly $160 billion in aid for state and local governments… The second bill could end up falling out of the final deal if lawmakers don’t rally around it….”  That the second bill could simply disappear without being considered seems to be the reason Congress separated the relief package into separate bills.

The Post‘s reporters explain that the first relief bill includes urgently needed economic protection for desperate families as unemployment grows: “16 weeks of unemployment benefits at $300 per week for jobless Americans, as well as 16-week extensions in base unemployment benefits and the unemployment program for gig workers and independent contractors. The plan also devotes $300 billion in small-business relief…. Additionally, the legislation includes $82 billion for schools; $13 billion in emergency food assistance; $25 billion in rental assistance; $35 billion for health-care providers; and $13 billion for farmers, ranchers, growers and fisheries; among other measures.  The bill will also have an extension of the eviction moratorium until Jan. 31, at which point lawmakers hope the $25 billion in rental assistance would alleviate pressure on renters.”

The bill does allocate some emergency relief for public schools—about two-thirds of what Carranza, Beutner, and Jackson insist school districts across America need in immediate assistance. The Post‘s reporters cover the politics in the Republican dominated U.S. Senate, which is unlikely to support the second bill containing longer term assistance for state and local governments.  Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla) is reported to have castigated the idea of “rewarding Democrats’ fiscal management (in blue states) with more taxpayer money.” Even conservative Republican Ohio Senator Rob Portman apparently felt compelled to push back against Rick Scott in favor of assistance for desperate states whose legislatures will begin taking up budget negotiations after the new year: “The economy is not getting better in most of our states.”

Why does the deepening recession across state and local governments matter so much for public schools? It is because, for example, as school districts plan staffing for the remainder of the current school year and for next school year, the condition of state budgets will be the determiner.  In their new book, The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire remind readers that roughly half of all school funding comes from state budgets: “The real spending action in education takes place at the state and local level. States pick up the tab for approximately 47 cents of each dollar spent on public education, while local communities contribute an additional 45 cents, primarily through property taxes.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,, p. 34)

In a commentary for CNN on Monday, the author of the new Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black explains that the problem is not merely the need for short-term emergency relief for school reopening, but instead a much longer term and more urgent shortage of revenue across the states compounded by inattention to equity in the distribution of state funding: “The federal government covers less than 10% of it—far from enough to counteract the inequalities that states structurally ingrain in their funding formulas. Nearly half the states provide less money to districts serving students from low-income households than they do to other districts. Studies have shown that a low-income student needs at least 40% more funding to be educated at the same standard of a student who is not low-income. Over the years, you can count on one hand the number of states with funding formulas that come near to providing low-income students with the resources necessary to achieve at reasonable levels. None of this is an accident. In my research, I found that states intentionally gerrymander their formulas in ways that advantage politically powerful communities and relieve them of the burden of supporting a statewide system of education that serves everyone.”

Black continues: “Drastic cuts during the last recession made the funding dilemma worse. A decade after the recession, roughly half the states had still failed to restore public education budgets to pre-recession levels. Now, the pandemic’s economic effects threaten a double dip in disadvantaged schools that can’t stand to fall any further. If that weren’t enough, the teaching profession has suffered a decade of trauma that included flat salaries, larger classrooms, higher expectations, and lower benefits.  Political leaders, like former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, justified the shifts by targeting teacher unions as the problem, if not the enemy,”

President Elect Joe Biden has promised to triple Title I funding, and pay for more wraparound Community Schools as well as increasing the investment of federal funds into the very expensive programs the federal government mandates for disabled students, but Black believes the Biden administration and the next education secretary, will face overwhelming challenges: “The solution to these problems will be hard to find in Washington, D.C.  No doubt the federal government has the money to eliminate unequal funding. Quadrupling the federal investment in low income students, for instance, would close half the existing funding gap between high-poverty and low-poverty schools and create the leverage to insist that states close the remaining gap themselves. That money could shrink classrooms, increase teacher salaries, expand pre-Kindergarten, hire reading specialists and mental health counselors and improve the overall school environment.  But the charter and voucher coalitions would cry foul or demand additional investments for themselves.”

Before real reform can move forward, however, Black believes the next Secretary of Education will need to help America better understand the needs of the poorest children in public schools and more fully appreciate our public responsibility to rectify injustice: “The most this next secretary might reasonably hope for is not a grand solution but to lower the temperature… And it would take a good secretary, not an average one, to mind those relationships, open lines of communication, and listen for long enough….The right pick might educate the nation, help its people understand our logjam and mediate differences until there is a middle ground on which to accept solutions to a few problems.  That is reality and, unfortunately, no solace to the children who suffer in the meantime.”

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