On February 27, the U.S House of Representatives passed President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief bill, and on Saturday, the U.S. Senate passed its version of the House bill. Nancy Pelosi says the House will promptly enact the Senate’s version, and the bill will move later this week to the President for his signature. News reports have focused on big economic elements of the relief package—unemployment relief and one-time stimulus checks, but one of the most important things about this bill has been under-reported: what the President and Congress plan to do for America’s children and their public schools.
The American Rescue Plan Supports Public Schools and the State Governments that Fund Public Schools
There has been enormous and utterly confusing guidance coming from the CDC, the White House, and mayors of big cities, all of whom want to get all children back to school in-person. But it is rarely mentioned that when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, public schools had been struggling for years with inadequate funding. Yes, schools could reopen safely if ventilation were adequate, but lots of old schools have windows that don’t open. Yes, schools could reopen safely if classes were small enough that classrooms could house all the students in desks six feet apart, but in too many classes these days, one teacher works with more than 30—sometimes even 40—students. Running school buses with social distancing would require additional buses. Because most of us don’t spend our time inside schools where we can observe the realities children and their teachers live with every day, we like to imagine that reopening schools ought to be an easy process. But the complexities can be overwhelming and the problems expensive to address—which is why many students are still learning remotely or attending school on complicated hybrid schedules.
The new stimulus package will help school districts address the complexities. The Washington Post‘s Rachel Siegel reports that Biden’s American Rescue Plan, passed by the House and now by the Senate, “sets aside almost $130 billion for K-12 education. That money would go to improving ventilation systems, reducing class sizes, buying personal protective equipment and implementing social distancing.” The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities adds that there is considerable flexibility, allowing school districts to use the funding over the next two-and-a-half school years: “With resources, schools can lengthen school days and the school year and invest in high-quality tutoring to help students—over the course of the next couple of years….”
On top of emergency relief money to support reopening, the bill the Senate passed on Saturday includes $350 billion for state, local and tribal governments. Last year’s Republican-majority Senate deleted aid for state and local governments from the March CARES Act and from the smaller relief plan that passed in late December. The Post‘s Rachel Siegel describes the effect of this year’s COVID-19 recession on state budgets: “Facing deep budget shortfalls, state and local governments have shed 1.3 million jobs since the pandemic began last year—a loss of more than 1 in 20 government jobs…. While tax revenue grew in some states last year, the majority—at least 26 states—were hit with declines. Revenue fell by 10 percent or more in five states… The toll was felt in both Republican-led states such as Texas, which saw a 10 percent shortfall, and Democratic-led ones, such as Oregon, which weathered a 13 percent drop… Across all states, cuts to education spending make up almost all of the job losses. On the local level, public education accounted for just over half of job losses.”
COVID-19’s financial pressure on state public education budgets only compounds what has been a long running drop in public school funding. In two important books published last fall, the authors describe the fiscal condition of school districts over the decade since the 2008 Great Recession but before COVID-19 struck. Here are Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire in The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’ Act 10 is remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights. But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-36)
In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black also examines the fiscal condition of U.S. public education even before COVID-19: “Before the recession of 2008, the trend in public school funding remained generally positive… Then the recession hit. Nearly every state in the country made large cuts to public education. Annual cuts of more than $1,000 per student were routine… (I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33) “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle-income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… But only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)
Federal dollars in the American Rescue Plan will cover emergency assistance for school reopening and ensure that states can restore cuts made in the past year to their per-pupil school funding. The goal is for school districts to be able to rehire enough teachers and support professionals to ensure that all children have the support they need when they return to school.
The American Rescue Plan Will Significantly Ameliorate Child Poverty for the Remainder of This Year
Beginning with the 1996 law that substituted Temporary Assistance for Needy Families for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, federal policy has aimed to incentivize parents to work instead of providing direct assistance for the children in America’s poorest families. President Biden’s priority, embodied in the new stimulus package, is to stabilize the lives of America’s poorest children and to make it possible for them to thrive and engage fully at school. Keep in mind that a family of four is officially living in poverty with an income of $26,500 or less; a family of four living in extreme poverty has an income of $13,250 or less. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently emphasized: “A large body of research links hardships such as inability to afford adequate food or housing to worse child outcomes. The effects of such hardships, which range from nutrient deficiency to disrupted schooling when families move frequently from home to home, can have lifelong consequences… Providing more food, housing, income, and other relief is linked with a range of long-term positive outcomes for children.” COVID-19 has increased the number of families living in poverty and exacerbated the stress these families are already experiencing.
The relief package the Senate passed on Saturday increases the Child Tax Credit and makes it fully refundable. The Child Tax Credit is not a new federal program; it is a per-child tax credit parents receive for each of their children. The American Rescue Plan increases the annual Child Tax Credit from $2,000 per child under current law to $3,600 per child for children 5-years-old and under and $3,000 per child for children 6-17 years-of-age. It works by reducing a parent’s federal income taxes leaving more earned income to be spent on children’s needs. But as the tax credit is currently designed, if a parent’s income is too low, that parent is not paying enough federal income tax to benefit from the full amount of the credit as higher earning parents do. President Biden’s plan would make the child tax cut fully available to all parents—“fully refundable” in the jargon of Congress. Biden’s plan will affect millions of America’s most vulnerable children—making their lives more secure and helping them thrive at school. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains that the American Rescue Plan “would lift another 4.1 million children above the poverty line, cutting the remaining number of children in poverty by more than 40 percent.”
The expansion of the Child Tax Credit is so urgently important that Jason DeParle highlighted it late yesterday for the NY Times: “Obscured by other parts of Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package which won Senate approval on Saturday, the child benefit has the makings of a policy revolution. Though framed in technocratic terms as an expansion of an existing tax credit, it is essentially a guaranteed income for families with children, akin to children’s allowances that are common in other rich countries. The plan establishes the benefit for a single year. But if it becomes permanent, as Democrats intend, it will greatly enlarge the safety net for the poor and the middle class at the same time when the volatile modern economy often leaves families moving between those groups. More than 93 percent of children—69 million—would receive benefits under the plan, at a one-year cost of more than $100 billion.” For years, DeParle has covered the impact on children and families of the 1996 welfare reform. His analysis is definitely worth reading.
Additionally, the American Rescue Plan includes relief to shore up the provision of child care, which has been threatened during this COVID-19 year. The executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), Olivia Golden explains: “The legislation contains $39 billion for the child care sector: $15 billion to expand the Child Care and Development Block Grant and $24 billion for a fund to stabilize the economically devastated child care sector. The investment builds on previous coronavirus relief bills to finally deliver $50 billion in child care relief, which CLASP has demonstrated is so vitally needed to keep child care providers afloat, support the child care workforce—disproportionately women of color—and allow child care to reopen safely. Child care is crucial infrastructure for the economy, and its restoration is critical for women’s return to the labor market. The legislation supports parents and children by including funds to make quality child care affordable for people with low incomes as they return to work.”
Golden summarizes why the American Rescue Plan is so important as our nation seeks a way out of the current health and economic crisis wrought by COVID-19: “The American Rescue Plan is the urgent response the nation needs. It’s the large-scale response required at this moment to many of our nation’s most pressing needs created by the coronavirus, recession, and racial inequity… It will alleviate today’s crisis of suffering in communities with low incomes and meaningfully reduce child poverty.”