Kevin Welner: In Our Alarmingly Unequal Society, Public Schools by Themselves Cannot Be the Great Equalizer

Someone should send Kevin Welner’s timely essay, “The Mythical Great Equalizer School System,” to Senator Joe Manchin, who has said he opposes expanding the Child Tax Credit as part of Build Back Better.

Welner’s essay, part of a new collection of essays, Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, edited by David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, is urgently timely. It examines the educational implications of the philosophy behind what has become the most controversial provision of President Biden’s Build Back Better Bill, now passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and awaiting action in the U.S. Senate: repairing a deeply flawed Child Tax Credit.

Welner, a professor of education at the University of Colorado and executive director of the National Education Policy Center, demonstrates that in a nation with millions of children living in poverty, public schools by themselves cannot provide enough support to compensate for the detrimental effects of alarming economic inequality. Welner examines the old and widely accepted myth that our public system of education is the great equalizer: “Can schools balance our societal inequality? If that inequality is left unaddressed, along with the harm it does to children, can policymakers reasonably expect an outcome of rough equality through focusing instead on building a dazzling public school system that would envelop those children in rich opportunities to learn? Admittedly, this describes an odd (and cruel) policy approach: to first inflict awful harm on children and then pour resources into schools in a desperate attempt to mitigate the harm.” (Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 87)

The Child Tax Credit has provided some support for child rearing since its passage in 1997. President Biden’s COVID relief bill passed in March of 2021 temporarily fixed problems with the Child Tax Credit as a way to help parents get through a year dominated by COVID-19.  For the NY Times, Ben Casselman explains: “Congress last spring expanded the existing child tax credit in three ways.  First, it made the benefits more generous, providing as much as $3,600 per child, up from $2,000. Second, it began paying the credit in monthly installments usually deposited directly into recipients’ bank accounts, turning the once-yearly windfall into something closer to the children’s allowances common in Europe. Finally, the bill made the full benefit available to millions who had previously been unable to take full advantage of the credit because they earned too little to qualify. Poverty experts say that change, known in tax jargon as ‘full refundability,’ was particularly significant because without it a third of children—including half of all Black and Hispanic children, and 70 percent of children being raised by single mothers—did not receive the full credit. Mr. Biden’s plan would have made that provision permanent.”

Because the Senate failed to pass Build Back Better by the end of 2021, these changes expired on New Year’s Eve.  If Senator Manchin would agree, these reforms can be reinstated in the Senate’s version of Build Back Better, which Congressional leaders still pledge to pass.

You can find some of Welner’s research summarized in a newsletter last October describing the National Education Policy Center’s new Price of Opportunity Project: “Those of us who work in or with schools never question the enormous impact that a teacher or school can have on a student. But this essential truth coexists with another truth: that differences between schools account for a relatively small portion of measured outcome differences. That is, opportunity gaps in the U.S arise primarily outside of schools. This should not be a surprise. Poverty, concentrated poverty, and racialized poverty are pervasive features of America. School improvement efforts cannot directly help children and their families overcome decades of policies that perpetuate systemic racism and economical inequality. When children are born in the United States, their educational and life outcomes can all be predicted based on their parents’ education, income and wealth. Compared to the Scandinavian countries and other so-called Western democracies like Canada, Spain, Australia, and New Zealand, American children are inordinately trapped in intergenerational poverty. Inequality in the U.S. is stark and enduring.”

In the longer essay published in Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Welner explains that between 60 and 80 percent of the achievement gaps as measured by standardized tests are attributable to outside-of-school opportunity gaps based on family income. Unlike President Biden, whose Build Back Better Bill acknowledges the lifetime impact of childhood poverty, Welner explains: “Many policymakers and others are still mired in a type of magical thinking. They have somehow convinced themselves that children’s opportunities to learn outside of school are not particularly important—that policy should simply focus on making schools more equal.” (Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, pp. 91-92)

Inadequate and inequitably distributed school funding across the states only complicates the problem: “Meanwhile the national discussion of school funding is so impoverished…. We hail states like New Jersey and Washington when legislators finally stop dragging their feet in response to decades of court orders in adequacy cases. But the legislators never actually meet or exceed the adequacy standard—and that standard remains far below what is needed…. (N)o state has yet reached… the level of equity that we call ‘minimal adequacy.’ This is defined as the additional resources to give all students a realistic shot at reaching basic levels set forth by state standards…. Even if we were ever to get to that point, vast inequality would remain in place because of opportunity gaps that arise due to societal inequalities.”(Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 87)

Welner believes that federal policy must address childhood poverty both inside and outside of school, and his essay is timely in the context of the dilemma facing Congress this winter. There is widespread agreement among advocates for children that President Biden’s reforms to the Child Tax Credit are the most basic way to begin ameliorating the opportunity gaps that Kevin Welner identifies as the greatest barrier to school achievement among children living in poverty.

First Focus on Children’s executive director, Bruce Lesley quotes from the recommendations of a 1991 National Commission on Children, recommendations advocates used in 1997 to justify the establishment of the Child Tax Credit: “Because it would assist all families with children, the refundable child tax credit would not be a relief payment, nor would it categorize children according to their ‘welfare’ or ‘nonwelfare’ status. In addition, because it would not be lost when parents enter the work force , as welfare benefits are, the refundable child tax credit could provide a bridge for families striving to enter the economic mainstream. It would substantially benefit hard-pressed single and married parents raising children. It could also help middle-income, employed parents struggling to afford high-quality child care. Moreover, because it is neutral toward family structure and mothers’ employment, it would not discourage the formation of two-parent families or of single-earner families in which one parent chooses to stay at home and care for the children.”

Lesley reminds us that, according to the Urban Institute, “under current law, the share of all new federal spending through 2030 for the adult portions of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will be 71% compared to just 2% for children’s programs.”  And he quotes findings from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget—that “while much of spending on adults is mandatory, spending on children is disproportionately discretionary…. Spending on children is disproportionately temporary…. Spending on adults is rarely limited while spending on children is often capped…. Most programs for children lack built-in growth…. Programs for children lack dedicated revenue and thus lack the political advantage and protection of programs for seniors that enjoy this benefit.”

Lesley urges Congress to make permanent the reforms to the Child Tax Credit passed temporarily for 2021 in last spring’s COVID relief bill.  These reforms benefited 65 million children “including an estimated 4 million children lifted out of poverty….”

However, among the three reforms to the Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan— increasing the amount of the per-child benefit, distributing the tax credit monthly instead of once a year, and making the tax credit fully refundable—one reform surpasses the others for ameliorating child poverty.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities emphasizes that, for America’s children, permanently making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable for families with very low income is the most important element in Build Back Better:

“In the absence of the full refundability provision, the first two of those changes would lift an estimated 543,000 children above the poverty line, reducing the child poverty rate by 5 percent… But the two changes plus full refundability stand to raise 4.1 million children above the poverty line and cut the child poverty rate by more than 40 percent. In other words, the full refundability feature makes the expansion nearly eight times as effective in reducing child poverty.” “Prior to the Rescue Plan, 27 million children received less than the full Child Tax Credit or no credit at all because their families’ incomes were too low. That included roughly half of all Black and Latino children and half of children who live in rural communities… This upside-down policy gave less help to the children who needed it most. The (COVID) Rescue Plan temporarily fixed this policy by making the tax credit fully refundable for 2021.  Build Back Better, in one of its signature achievements, would make this policy advance permanent.”  (emphasis in the original)

House Version of Build Back Better Makes the Child Tax Credit Fully Refundable. The Magnitude of this Change Is Breathtaking.

In our outrageously unequal and increasingly secular society—when Black Friday crowds filled the stores, scrambled to take advantage of online sales, and grieved shortages of the latest iPhones, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a Build Back Better Bill on November 19 that feels almost like a response to a biblical call for justice for America’s children.

During the four-week season of Advent, which began yesterday, Christians will anticipate the birth of the Christ Child in a humble stable.  Worshipers will consider the words of Mary:  “My soul magnifies the Lord… for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of the Almighty’s servant…  God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things….'” (Luke: 1:46-55)

The House version of the omnibus economic reform legislation demanded by President Biden has now been sent to the U.S. Senate for deliberation and possible passage—perhaps by Christmas.  Here is how Sharron Parrott, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities describes the significance of what the House accomplished on November 19: “Today’s vote brings us a critical step closer to delivering policy advances that help families meet everyday challenges such as paying rent and putting food on the table, affording child care and preschool, securing health coverage, and paying for college… The Build Back Better bill would reduce poverty substantially, particularly among children, narrow our nation’s glaring racial disparities, which are the result of our long history of racism and discrimination; and move us toward an economy that works for everyone.”

The House Build Back Better legislation expands the economic reach of the Child Tax Credit. To explain the significance of this single provision, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities published a separate 19 page report which explains not only the economic but also the profound moral implications of this reform if the Senate follows through by sustaining the actions of the U.S. House:

“The House Build back Better legislation would ensure that families continue to get a significantly expanded Child Tax Credit via monthly payments through 2022; and it would permanently make the full credit available to children in families with low or no earnings in a year, locking in substantial expected reductions in child poverty. The expanded credit benefits roughly 9 in 10 children across the country….  Making the full Child Tax Credit available for families with low or no earnings in a year, often called making it ‘fully refundable,’ is expected to generate historic reductions in child poverty… Before the Rescue Plan made the full Child Tax Credit fully available in 2021, 27 million children in families with low or no income in a year received less than the full credit or no credit at all. Full refundability ensures that children in these families get the same amount of the Child Tax Credit as children in families with higher incomes. This provision is the main driver of the credit expansion’s child poverty reductions.” (emphasis in the original)

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities continues: “Build Back Better’s Child Tax Credit expansions—especially permanent full refundability—also represent a significant step toward racial equity; they would permanently eliminate a fundamental design flaw in the credit that had the direct effect of ensuring that disproportionate numbers of Black and Latino children received a partial credit or none at all. Before the Rescue Plan’s expansion, roughly half of Black and Latino children in our country received less than the full Child Tax Credit or no credit at all—compared to roughly 1 in 5 white children—because their families earned too little.  Black and Latino families are overrepresented in low-paid work and face worse employment prospects due to historical and ongoing discrimination in education, housing, employment, and criminal justice that have systematically limited opportunity. Build Back Better would also restore eligibility for the credit to children who aren’t eligible for a Social Security number because of their immigration status but can be claimed as tax dependents by using an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN).”

The details of the report are profound.  Until last spring’s COVID relief bill, many children had been excluded because “their families’ incomes were too low. That included roughly half of all Black and Latino children and half of children who live in rural communities… This upside-down policy gave less help to the children who needed it most.  The (COVID) Rescue Plan temporarily fixed this policy by making the tax credit fully refundable for 2021.  Build Back Better, in one of its signature achievements, would make this policy advance permanent.”

In the American Rescue relief bill last spring, Congress made three significant changes in the Child Tax Credit: raising the maximum Child Tax Credit from $2,000 to $3,600 per child through age 5, and $3,000 for children age 6-17; allowing families to receive a Child Tax Credit for 17-year-olds; and making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable for the year 2021.  The House version of the Build Back Better Bill extends the first two provisions only through 2022, but the House version permanently makes the Child Tax Credit fully refundable.

CBPP explains the significance for 2022 alone of the changes the House has included in the version it passed on November 19:  “In the absence of the full refundability provision, the first two of those changes would lift an estimated 543,000 children above the poverty line, reducing the child poverty rate by 5 percent… But the two changes plus full refundability stand to raise 4.1 million children above the poverty line and cut the child poverty rate by more than 40 percent.  In other words, the full refundability feature makes the expansion nearly eight times as effective in reducing child poverty.” (emphasis in the original)

What will it mean after 2022 if the U.S. Senate passes the Child Tax Credit reforms now embedded in the House version? “If the maximum credit amount drops back to $2,000 per child in the coming years and the age range of eligibility for the credit returns to under 17, but full refundability remains permanent, roughly 2 million children would be lifted above the poverty line (as compared to child poverty without the full refundability provision in place).  That would reduce child poverty by roughly 20 percent compared to what it would be without the expansion.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows how, if adopted by the Senate, Build Back Better will help one family in 2022: “A single mom, with a toddler and a daughter who is a second-grader, works as a home health aide helping an elderly person meet their basic needs; she makes $12,500 working part time around her kids’ schedule. Prior to the Rescue Plan, this family received a Child Tax Credit of $750 per child per year, but they now get $550 per month — a total $3,600 for the toddler and $3,000 for the second-grader in 2021 — and would in 2022 as well if Build Back Better is enacted.” (emphasis in the original)

Making the Child Tax Credit permanently refundable is only one of the urgently needed reforms to ameliorate injustice for America’s children now passed in the House version of Build Back Better—all of which the U.S. Senate needs to adopt.  Here is a summary, from First Focus on Children’s president, Bruce Lesley, of the pro-child investments passed by the U.S. House of Representatives: “This once-in-a-generation legislation will transform the lives of our country’s children and the path of the nation itself. Children have endured decades of deferred maintenance on the care and services they need most. The provisions of this bill — extension and permanent refundability of the child tax credit, universal pre-school, affordable child care, better nutrition, paid family and medical leave, improvement of key children’s health programs — will vastly improve the health and well-being of our children. We implore lawmakers in the Senate to support this measure and bring these benefits to our children and our country.”

Mob Rule Is Un-American—at the Capitol on January 6 and at Your Local School Board Meeting

This isn’t how it’s supposed to work. A mob isn’t supposed to attack Congress to overturn the routine approval of the vote count in a Presidential election, and mobs of angry parents are not supposed to appear at local school board meetings trying to bully the school board to censor the books in classrooms or make teachers leave out the history of slavery or omit the theory of evolution.

I am neither an attorney nor a legal expert on the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. But even I can tell that something weird is brewing when a right-wing PAC, The Conservative Action Project, sends an alert, Conservatives Urge Every Parent To Attend Their School Board Meetings in Defiance of the FBI, signed by a long list of people including attorneys like former Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Trump defender Cleta Mitchell, demanding that parents attend local school board meetings to defy the FBI and demonstrate their First Amendment rights. Of course this action alert is carefully framed to ask parents “to use their rights to speak, to request documents under the Freedom of Information Laws, to engage in dialogue with elected school boards,” but the Conservative Action Project message to parents is a response to Attorney General Merrick Garland’s threat to involve the FBI when school board members are threatened with violence or outshouted and unable to do their work in the context of rude and violent parent protests.

Then there is last week’s bizarre Wall Street Journal commentary* by Philip Hamburger, a libertarian professor of law at Columbia University and president of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a legal organization which describes itself this way: “NCLA views the administrative state as an especially serious threat to constitutional freedoms.” (*The link is to Diane Ravitch’s reprinting of this column, because the original is paywalled.)

Hamburger makes the following argument, based on his interpretation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, for direct parental control of the curriculum in public schools and for finding public education itself unconstitutional because parents’ free speech rights are being violated: “Education consists mostly in speech to and with children. Parents enjoy freedom of speech in educating their children, whether at home or through private schooling.” “Although the exact nature of this parental freedom is much disputed, it is grounded in the First Amendment…. (T)he freedom of parents in educating their children belongs to all parents… The public school system, by design, pressures parents to substitute government educational speech for their own. Public education is a benefit tied to an unconstitutional condition. Parents get subsidized education on the condition that they accept government educational speech in lieu of home or private schooling… (P)arents are… being pushed into accepting government speech for their children in place of their own… For most parents, the economic pressure to accept this educational speech in place of their own is nearly irresistible.”

Here is the response of journalist, Jennifer Berkshire and education historian, Jack Schneider: “(O)ne might reasonably conclude that radicals are out to curtail the established rights that Americans have over the educational sphere. Yet what’s actually radical here is the assertion of parental powers that have never previously existed. This is not to say that parents should have no influence over how their children are taught. But common law and case law in the United States have long supported the idea that education should prepare young people to think for themselves, even if that runs counter to the wishes of parents… When do the interests of parents and children diverge? Generally, it occurs when a parent’s desire to inculcate a particular world view denies the child exposure to other ideas and values that an independent young person might wish to embrace or at least to entertain. To turn over all decisions to parents, then, would risk inhibiting the ability of young people to think independently.”

Last week, the Washington Post Editorial Board spoke up for the rights of children themselves and the importance to the public of students who have developed critical thinking skills: “Allowing one parent—or a group of parents—to bully, threaten and intimidate school officials into their way of thinking is not what our democracy is about. And it is not what learning should be about. It is chilling that a school administrator in Texas suggested that an opposing view of the Holocaust needed to be taught to comply with the state’s controversial law on curriculum content.  Everyone—parents, teachers, and school administrators, as well as politicians—needs to focus less on what books are being taught and more on giving students the skills to think critically and form their own judgments.”

Education historian, Diane Ravitch challenges Hamburger’s inaccurate depiction of the history of American public schooling: “Hamburger’s central critique of the public schools is that they were created by nativists out of fear of Catholicism and their central purpose was to homogenize all children and mold them into Protestants. He repeatedly asserts that the very idea of the public school was shaped by hostility to Catholics… Were there anti-Catholics who supported public schools? Yes. Were there nativists who hated Catholics and who feared that the Pope wanted to seize control of their city or state? Yes.  Was the primary purpose of the public school movement to stamp out the influence of Catholics? No. The overwhelming majority of Americans supported the growth of public schools because they believed that a democratic society needed educated citizens who were prepared for self-government. The Catholic school system grew and thrived. Catholic leaders thought their schools were unfairly denied public funding, but the idea of prohibiting the public funding of religious schools was broadly popular and appears in almost every state constitution. The public endorsed the proposition that society as a whole, though taxation, is responsible for maintaining a public school system that offers a free education for all who enroll.”

Without taking on the bizarre logic of Hamburger’s far-right legal argument that the First Amendment’s protection of free speech renders public schooling unconstitutional as a violation of parents’ rights, First Focus on Children’s executive director Bruce Lesley suggests  the chaotic result if a school board were to adopt the demands being shouted by parents to suppress what is deemed accurate science or history or to censor books we’ve all been reading for decades:

“(I)magine an elementary school of 450 students where 15 parents oppose the teaching of evolution, 19 parents believe the earth is flat, 28 are Holocaust deniers, 22 oppose white children learning about slavery, 7 believe in racial segregation, 21 believe in the concept of a school without walls, 49 demand the use of corporal punishment, 18 want to ban Harry Potter books from the school library, 26 want to ban any books that mention the Trail of Tears, 62 believe that parents should be allowed to overrule a physician’s decision that a child with a concussion should refrain from participating in sports, 87 oppose keeping their kids out of school when they have the flu, 9 believe that a child with cancer might be contagious, 29 believe that kids who are vaccinated should be the ones who quarantine, 72 support “tracking” in all subject areas, 32 believe students should not be taught how to spell the word “isolation” and “quarantine” because they are too “scary of words,” 104 don’t like the school neighborhood boundaries, 38 don’t like the bus routes, 71 parents want a vegan-only lunchroom, 4 demand same-sex classrooms, 5 oppose textbooks and want their children only reading from the Bible, and it can go on and on. The vast majority of parents do not agree with any of these things, and yet, parental rights extremists would insist schools must accommodate them, even if they are completely false, undermine the purpose of education, threaten the safety of children, or promote discrimination. How can a school operate if every parent can decide every aspect of the education of their child, as some are demanding? It cannot.”

Lesley juxtaposes Hamburger’s libertarian argument with the profound defense of public schooling by the late Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Earl Warren: “Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” (Brown v. Board of Education, May 17, 1954)

Congress Neglects Children: No Relief for Public Schools or State Budgets

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…”