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.”

For Decades America Has Blamed and Punished Public Schools Serving Poor Children: Biden’s Plan Addresses the Underlying Poverty

For over fifty years sociologists of education have documented the correlation between the ravages of child poverty and challenges for children at school. Hunger, homelessness and the family anxiety that accompanies the struggle to survive make it hard for many students to thrive at school. This is why the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes the American Rescue Plan, President Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill signed into law last week, as “a huge new school reform.” And Strauss isn’t writing merely about the $130 billion included in the bill for public schools:

“President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is aimed at helping the country recover from the coronavirus pandemic—but it is another thing, as well: a major federal school reform unlike those we’ve seen in the past few decades. While the new law is aimed at helping families get back on their feet and helping businesses and schools reopen after a year of turmoil, it includes measures that together have the potential to slash poverty among the 12 million students who live in low-income households.”

Strauss reminds us how, over the past quarter century, public education policy has gone wrong—blaming the schools themselves and failing effectively to address children’s needs: “Policymakers have been focused for decades on improving public schools with a culture based on standardized testing, the expansion of charter schools and other ‘school choice’ measures, and, in some places, the demonization of teachers. Child poverty, they said, was an excuse for poor performance by adults. But the testing/choice/big data approach has not closed the achievement gap, and on some measures, it has barely moved… Many schools nationwide have attempted to address the out-of-school lives of students including ‘community schools’ that forge partnerships with local agencies and organizations to provide wraparound services for children. But federal policy has been focused on other things since 2002’s No Child Left Behind law ushered in an era of standardized-testing accountability systems for schools and districts.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) documents  the impact of Biden’s new relief package on America’s children. The American Rescue plan will enable nearly 66 million children and adolescents under the age of eighteen to benefit from the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, including 27 million who had been left out until last week. “The Act will lift 4.1 million additional children above the poverty line—cutting the remaining number of children in poverty by more than 40 percent—and lift 1.1 million children above half the poverty line (referred to as ‘deep poverty’),  Among the children that the Child Tax Credit expansion will lift above the poverty line, some 1.2 million are Black and 1.7 million are Latino.”

The President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, John Jackson describes the significance of the expansion of the Child Tax Credit: “The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan… is a watershed moment. That such legislation has become law—that our federal government acted decisively with a bill targeted to aid low-and middle-income families—evokes equal parts inspiration and relief in its radical departure from previous trickle-down approaches that have increased inequality and racial injustice… Now, more than 93% of children in America will receive full or partial benefits under the Child Tax Credit… Because of past policy actions which disproportionately harmed Black, brown and Native children and families, this policy specifically adds unique benefits to those communities.”

The new rescue plan also targets money directly to help public schools. The CBPP reports: “The American Rescue Plan also includes $130 billion in new, mostly very flexible funds for school districts, which they will be able to spend through the 2023-2024 school year to address the pandemic and its effects on student learning. This is the largest-ever one-time federal investment in K-12 education, but entirely appropriate in light of school funding needs. Historically, K-12 schooling has been funded overwhelmingly by states and localities; they currently provide 92 percent of funding, with the federal government providing the rest. COVID-19, however, forced states to cut funding and created enormous financial and educational challenges that states and localities will be hard pressed to meet over the next several years without federal assistance. K-12 funding comprises about 26 percent of state budgets, and states will find it very hard to shield that funding while meeting their balanced-budget requirements. Even before COVID-19, schools endured years of inadequate and inequitable funding. Some 15 to 20 states were still providing less funding for K-12 schools when the pandemic hit than before the Great Recession a decade ago… When COVID-19 hit, schools were employing 77,000 fewer teachers and other workers while educating 1.5 million more children.”

So what will new relief dollars set aside for public schools cover? According to the CBPP: “Schools need to close the ‘digital divide,’ so all students and teachers have access to devices and connectivity. They need to safely operate in-person schools, which will require … more custodial staff, and more buses and drivers to maintain social distancing. A quarter of schools have no full- or part-time nurse, and most schools lack counseling support to help students navigate the mental-health challenges of returning to school. Many schools will need to add staff/ and/or portable classrooms to reduce class size to meet social distancing guidelines… With resources, schools can lengthen school days and the school year and invest in high-quality tutoring to help students…. Along with the $130 billion, the Act includes ‘maintenance of equity’ provisions that require states to avert funding cuts to schools and school districts with high numbers of poor children.”

The bill’s specifics are important, but all kinds of journalists and social scientists continue to point to its overall meaning as the harbinger of a major shift in federal economic policy, despite that it is a temporary relief bill whose primary infusions of funding will eventually run out.

The NY Times Jamelle Bouie writes: “The list of new policies goes on. There is money in the American Rescue Plan to expand food stamps, bolster state welfare programs, and increase federal support for child and dependent care. Put all this together and the bill is expected to reduce overall poverty by more than a third and child poverty by more than half. It is, with no exaggeration, the single most important piece of anti-poverty legislation since Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, itself the signature program of a man who sought to emulate FDR.”

Here is the Washington Post‘s Catherine Rampell: “Sure President Biden may be the oldest president in U.S. history.  But in signing his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan into law, he just delivered the biggest legislative victory for the young in generations. For decades, the general trend in federal fiscal policy, with some limited exceptions, has been to transfer wealth away from the young toward the old. The federal government spends about six times as much per capita on older Americans (primarily in the form of Social Security and Medicare) as it does on children…. It’s no surprise, then, that children have long had the highest poverty rates of any age group in the United States. They also have the dubious honor of notching one of the highest child-poverty rates in the developed world, largely because other rich countries invest considerably more in children than we do.”

Writing for the NY Times, economist Paul Krugman explains: “(T)he American Rescue Plan Act… reinstates significant aid for children. Moreover, unlike most of the act’s provisions, this change… is intended to outlast the current crisis; Democrats hope and expect that substantial payments to families with children will become a permanent part of the American scene.” This is thanks to a promise by Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to bring forward legislation this year to make permanent the expansion of the Child Tax Credit.

Krugman continues: “(T)his isn’t a return to welfare as we knew it; nobody will be able to live on child support. But it will sharply reduce child poverty. And it also… represents a philosophical break with the past few decades, and in particular with the obsessive fear that poor people might take advantage of government aid by choosing not to work… (T)hese traditional (Republican) attacks, which used to terrify Democrats, no longer seem to be resonating. Clearly, something has changed in American politics.”

The American Prospect‘s Robert Kuttner cheers: “Maybe once or twice in a century, you can feel the ground shifting. This is surely one of those moments. After yesterday, Donald Trump looms a lot smaller, and so does mainstream political conservatism. I’ve never seen the Wall Street Journal editorial page so despondent…  Activist government has been demonized for more than a generation. A great many working-class people, who saw government under both parties getting into bed with elites rather than providing practical help… may give government and the Democrats a second look.”

President Biden’s Proposed Economic Stimulus Plan Would Help Public Schools and Begin to Alleviate Child Poverty

President Joe Biden has proposed a new pandemic relief package, his “American Rescue Plan,” which includes essential support for public education.

For the clearest overall summary of Biden’s new COVID-19 relief plan, please read the two page statement from Sharon Parrott, the new president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Parrott explains that Biden’s relief proposal addresses the needs of individual workers and families and finally begins to relieve the budget pressures on states, tribal governments and cities resulting from the pandemic-caused economic recession.  You will notice that Parrott pays particular attention to the ways Biden’s plan addresses the needs of America’s poorest children. Here is a very quick extract:

“President… Biden’s emergency relief proposal is a substantial, responsible plan that would significantly reduce the hardship that millions of people across the country are now facing… The President’s proposal would extend a series of important relief measures…. expanded unemployment benefits for millions… the federal moratorium on evictions….  additional funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program…. (and) the recently enacted increase in SNAP benefits…. Rates of food hardship are particularly high among children.”  President Biden’s plan also temporarily expands the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which would help millions of low-income families with children and workers without minor children at home make ends meet…. The proposal would increase the amount of the Child Tax Credit and make the full credit available to the 27 million children who currently don’t get the full credit (or in some cases, any credit at all) because their incomes are too low… The plan calls for substantial additional child care funding, to supplement the funds provided in the year-end relief package. This funding could help child care providers cope with reduced enrollment due to the pandemic and with increased costs to keep children and staff safe.  It also could provide needed help to families to afford child care as more people are able to return to work.” “The proposal includes much-needed state and local government fiscal relief, including funds specifically to support schools and public colleges, funding to hire more local public health workers, and aid to help states and localities avoid laying off more people. Already, 1.4 state and local workers have lost their jobs since February.”

The Washington Post‘s Moriah Balingit explains that a smaller $900 billion relief package—passed in late December by Congress and signed by former President Trump—allocated $54 billion in assistance for public schools that have struggled to reopen as COVID-19 has ebbed and surged from region to region across the United States: “The nation’s public schools, which collectively serve more than 50 million schoolchildren, are set to get about $54 billion in coronavirus aid, funding that will help them cover steeply escalating costs for paying for personal protective equipment, building renovations and for technology needed to educate children remotely… Schools have been waiting for a funding boost for months.  In the first coronavirus package (the CARES Act), passed shortly after schools shut down in March, lawmakers allocated $13 billion for schools. They have not received any additional funding since.”

Education Week‘s Evie Bladd describes how President Biden’s new proposal would add to the extremely minimal $54 billion relief for public schools Congress passed in December. Biden focuses first on helping public schools reopen with adjustments to make schools safe for students and for teachers and staff: “President… Joe Biden is calling for $130 billion in additional COVID-19 relief funding for schools, ramped up testing efforts, and accelerated vaccine distribution strategies to help reopen ‘the majority of K-8 schools’ within the first 100 days of his administration…  The education relief funding in Biden’s proposal could be used for a wide range of purposes, including hiring additional staff to reduce class sizes, modifying spaces to allow for more social distancing, improving ventilation systems, providing school nurses for schools that don’t have them, building up remote learning resources, and providing additional academic and social-emotional supports for students when they return to the classroom.”

When, in December, Congress passed the $900 billion relief bill, Senate Republicans insisted the package be lower than $1 trillion, and cut out assistance for state and local governments in order to pass the bill.  Bladd explains that Biden’s new plan finally proposes to allocate $350 billion in aid to state and local governments. Back in the spring when the House passed the HEROES Act, the bill included $915 in direct relief for state, local and tribal governments in anticipation of state budget drops due to a COVID-19 recession. But the HEROES Act was never taken up by the U.S. Senate, where Republican leaders resisted passing assistance for state governments through the end of the Congressional session. Weakness in the economy this winter as the number of COVID-19 cases has grown alarmingly threatens significantly to reduce the tax revenues on which state governments depend.  The inclusion of $350 billion for state and local governments in Biden’s plan is far less than what was contained in the HEROES Act, but important for public education nonetheless, because state governments are responsible for over 45 percent of all public school funding.

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman urges Congress to enact Biden’s plan: “The narrow Democratic margin in Congress means that the most ambitious progressive goals will have to be put on hold. But the rescue package Biden unveiled… already indicates he won’t exhibit the excessive caution that inhibited President Barack Obama’s response to economic crisis… Biden is seeking… (a) major relief package, including a new effort to reduce child poverty, and he may soon move to make the A.C.A. more generous and cover more people.  He should push hard on both fronts: recent experience shows that smart government spending can do a lot to improve American lives…. (T)here is now widespread agreement among economists that debt is far less of a problem than conventional wisdom asserted… (W)hile the level of federal debt may seem high, low interest rates mean that the burden of servicing the debt is actually very low by historical standards.”

In her statement this week on Biden’s economic relief plan, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Sharon Parrot emphatically agrees: “The robust set of measures in President… Biden’s proposal would meet critical needs and is appropriate to the scale of the crisis we face. Given the current environment, the risk of providing too little economic stimulus and hardship relief far outweighs the risk of providing too much. Policymakers should not repeat the mistakes of the Great Recession, when they inflicted substantial human and economic harm on the nation by shifting to a posture of austerity that weakened the recovery….”

COVID-19 Widens Inequality Among America’s Young People, But So Far, There Is No Plan to Address It

What are all the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown obstacles in the paths of America’s poorest young people?  The numbers are staggering. Hardship is so overwhelming that it is almost impossible to grasp the deeper meaning of the data in the reports from major policy organizations.

Here is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: “Households with children are more likely to have trouble affording food or paying the rent or mortgage than households without children. Based on five weeks of Census Bureau Pulse Survey data collected from June 18 to July 21, we estimate that: Approximately 19 million children, or 1 in 4 children, live in a household that isn’t getting enough to eat, is behind on rent or mortgage payments, or both. These levels of hardship are substantially higher among Black and Latino children, reflecting longstanding inequities that the current crisis has exacerbated.”

The Economic Policy Institute describes barriers to learning: “The pandemic has exacerbated well-documented opportunity gaps that put low-income students at a disadvantage relative to their better-off peers. Opportunity gaps are gaps in access to the conditions and resources that enhance learning and development, and include access to food and nutrition, housing, health insurance and care, and financial relief measures. One of the most critical opportunity gaps is the uneven access to the devices and internet access critical to learning online. This digital divide has made it virtually impossible for some students to learn during the pandemic.”

First Focus on Children tracks family suffering:”The Household Pulse Survey from the Census Bureau tracks food insecurity, financial hardship, and other indicators of child and family well-being since the outbreak of COVID-19. USDA’s annual Household Food Security report monitors the extent and severity of food insecurity across the United States during a given year through a nationally representative survey. The USDA report found that in roughly 7% of food-insecure households, parents and caregivers are able to shield their children and provide semi-normal diets by going without food themselves. However, research by the University of Michigan has found that despite parents’ and caregivers’ best efforts, many children still worry about not having enough food and about their parents’ well-being, and express embarrassment and sadness about not having enough food.”

The Center for Law and Social Policy examines the plight of adolscents and young adults: “The coronavirus pandemic emerged in the context of deep inequities, widening long-standing chasms across income, race, and ethnicity…  Even before the pandemic, children and young adults had the highest poverty rates of all age groups. Young adults face far higher rates of unemployment than any other age group. Some also face massive student loan debt and few jobs prospects. Prior to the coronavirus, the economy was already leaving out young adults. Young people accounted for approximately 25 percent of jobs paying low wages, nearly half of all minimum-wage earners, and a disproportionate share of the unemployed. Between January and May, the unemployment rate jumped from 13 percent to 30 percent for teens, age 16-19, and from 7.6 to 23.2 percent for young adults, age 20-24. Young people of color are overburdened with structural and systemic factors that create barriers to work. These include mass incarceration and the implicit biases in the criminal justice system; racism and discrimination; segregation and isolation; policy and investment failures in the K-12 and postsecondary systems; and major gaps in access to and investment in crucial supports for work, including child care, health, and behavioral health. This disruption in their education and work experience comes when young adults are just beginning their careers, which can have lifelong implications for earnings.”

What does all this data mean?  Most of us are quickly overwhelmed when we try to grasp the many ways the COVID-19 pandemic is blocking opportunity for our nation’s poorest young people. Last week, however, the Washington Post‘s Heather Long and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel opened one window through which we can look into the isolated, private struggles of students who can’t make opportunity work for them this autumn. The reporters begin: “In August, Paige McConnell became the first in her family to go to college—and the first to drop out.  McConnell, 18, could not make online classes work. She doesn’t have WiFi at her rural home in Crossville, Tenn. The local library turned her away, not wanting anyone sitting around during the pandemic. She spent hours in a McDonald’s parking lot using the fast-food chain’s Internet, but she kept getting kicked off her college’s virtual classes because the network wasn’t ‘safe.’ Two weeks after starting at Roane State Community College, she gave up.”

The reporters describe how the president of a Pennsylvania community college came to recognize what his school would have to do to make virtual learning work: “When he saw students huddled outside a Sheetz convenience store trying to do their virtual classes on the store’s WiFi network, John J. ‘Ski” Sgielski, president of Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC)…  realized just how much help his school would have to provide low-income students if they were to make it through the fall semester. Like many schools, HACC is predominantly holding virtual classes this fall. Sygielski’s team has given out hundreds of computers to needy students and ‘close to 400’ hotspots, but he fears too many students will just give up on higher education as they see family members getting sick with COVID-19, losing jobs and struggling to eat.”

The reporters describe college president Sgielski’s dilemma not just from the point of view of struggling students, but also in terms of the college’s enrollment figures: “Enrollment is down 13 percent at HACC this fall, though enrollment is still underway because some classes don’t start until later this month.  Black enrollment is down 17 percent, and Hispanic enrollment is down almost 19 percent.  It’s a similar story at many other flagship community and public colleges.  Fall enrollment at Miami Dade College is down 17.5 percent so far, with a 16 percent decline among Hispanic students and a 20 percent decline among Black students. Northern Virginia Community College and the City University of New York are down about 4 percent each this fall, with early data indicating a steep decline for Black students at Northern Virginia Community College.”

The reporters add: “The drop-off in college enrollment is unusual and particular to this pandemic, as college enrollment during the Great Recession grew. Typically, enrollment jumps during economic downturns when jobs are scarce and people look to retrain. Yet, the opposite is happening now.  Students who are the first in their families to pursue college degrees don’t tend to take ‘gap years’ to travel and intern. When low-income students stop attending school, they rarely return, diminishing their job and wage prospects for the rest of their lives. Only 13 percent of college dropouts ever return, a National Student Clearinghouse report last year found, and even fewer graduate. ‘The ultimate fear is this could be a lost generation of low-income students,’ said Bill DeBaun, the National College Attainment Network’s (NCAN) data director.”

One challenge during the pandemic is everyone’s isolation. Locked up at home, we are less likely to  encounter the students parked in public library or fast food restaurant parking lots to take advantage of the WiFi. And families who are hungry or behind in rent and families whose health insurance evaporated when the primary bread winner lost a job are coping with these stresses quietly inside their homes.  The big reports by Washington think tanks and advocacy groups have, however, documented growing suffering among America’s poorest families. Why, in the richest nation in the world, is nobody really doing anything about it? Clearly the Trump administration and the Senate Republican leadership, which have blocked allocation of federal dollars through a second COVID-19 relief bill can be blamed, as can the paralyzing politics of a contentious election season.

Last spring, some people said that COVID-19 would shine a bright light on long standing inequality and we’d have to do something.  I wish I saw growing public will to ameliorate the struggles of America’s poorest children and young adults.

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.

Budgeting for the Public Good

Public schools—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public, while imperfect, are essential for ensuring that all children are served.  Public schools are the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children. Our society has improved justice in our system of public education over the generations because the U.S. Constitution, the constitutions of the 50 states, and laws passed by Congress and the state legislatures protect the rights of all children including previously marginalized—African American, Native American, disabled, immigrant, and LGBTQ—children. Public schools will always need to be improved to do a better job, and public oversight under law is embedded into the very design of public education. If a student is poorly served, the family has the right to redress under the law.

Private schools, which accept publicly funded tuition vouchers, are neither required to protect the rights of disabled children by providing the necessary and appropriate programming, nor to provide services for undocumented children, nor to accept children of every religion. And while charter schools that contract with the government are charged with protecting students’ rights, many find ways to push out the students they don’t want or employ zero tolerance disciplinary practices that violate children’s civil rights. Oversight is supposed to be provided by state laws in the more than 40 states which have set up charter schools, but in many cases the laws are weak and enforcement is lax.

Private schools accepting publicly funded tuition vouchers and charter schools, which are paid tax dollars under government contracts, extract public funds from the public school system, which serves 90 percent of our society’s children and adolescents, roughly 50 million young people. While recently President Donald Trump, has been trashing “government” schools,” he and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos both support privatized alternatives which are, ironically, paid for by government. School choice creates a marketplace of privatized services, but the costs are absorbed by government at the expense of the public schools that serve most of our children. These publicly funded but privatized educational institutions pay for their operating expenses with public dollars, but no one can promise they will protect the public good.

I guess if you are a right-leaning promoter of school privatization like Betsy DeVos, you would consider the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities “a left-leaning think tank,” a tag I often see in the press next to the name of this national organization.  After all, as its name explains, it is an organization that examines the appropriation of public dollars for public purposes—the federal budget and the budgets of the fifty states. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) examines the priorities represented when federal and state legislative bodies appropriate money.  If you don’t like public institutions like public schools, or if you don’t like funding for programs like CHIP (children’s healthcare) or SNAP (food stamps) you might disdain the CBPP—by callling it a liberal think tank—because it advocates funding levels for these programs. CBPP looks at public funding trends over the decades and how these funding trends reflect the level of services provided.

As someone who values public schools as among our society’s primary civic institutions, I value the the Center on Budget and Priorities for objective analysis of public school budget appropriations across the states. In a June 11, 2020 brief, CBPP reviews the history of the impact of the Great Recession a decade ago on public education budgets across the states: “When COVID-19 hit, K-12 schools employed 77,000 fewer teachers and other workers than before the Great Recession even though they were teaching 2 million more children, and overall K-12 funding in many states was still below pre-recession levels. In response (to the Great Recession), many districts had to increase class sizes, employ fewer school nurses, and counselors, and postpone needed investments in technology and school buildings. These cuts harm students—especially students in low-income districts, who are disproportionately students of color. One study found that high-school graduation rates fell by 2.6 percentage points for every 10 percent spending cut by public school districts after the Great Recession. Cuts in state support often widen educational divides between students in poorer districts and those in wealthier districts, which can more easily make up for the lost funding.”

Now, due to COVID-19 business shutdowns and layoffs, the U.S. economy has fallen into another recession.  CBPP’s June 11 policy brief addresses the likely impact of the current COVID-19 economic crisis crisis on children: “States’ fiscal crises threaten cuts that would damage children’s future. Due to the pandemic and resulting economic fallout, states face historic shortfalls of hundreds of billions of dollars over three state fiscal years. Absent further fiscal relief states and localities will be forced to cut services, likely including services particularly important to children, such as K-12 education and possibly even the Children’s Health Insurance Program. School districts have laid off or furloughed 760,000 employees over the last three months. Such cuts can have lasting impacts. K-12 funding faced especially damaging cuts in the Great Recession and school districts have never fully recovered from the layoffs imposed back then.”

In a second report, on June 15, The Center on Budget and Polities Priorities State Budget Watch explains: “COVID-19 has triggered a severe state budget crisis. While the full magnitude of this crisis is not yet clear, state revenues are declining precipitously and costs are rising sharply with many businesses closed and tens of millions of people newly unemployed… CBPP estimates that state budget shortfalls will ultimately reach almost 10 percent in the current fiscal year (which ends on June 30 in most states) and about 25 percent in fiscal year 2021 based on recent economic projections… States must shortly adopt budgets that will extend until July 2021. State revenue estimators are likely proceeding cautiously with these initial estimates… Policymakers will want to be more certain about the scale of expected revenue drops before making large and harmful budget cuts. Current economic forecasts strongly suggest, however, that as the full scale of the downturn becomes clearer, revenue projections will fall further… Even the initial projections now available make clear that states face an immediate crisis in their current fiscal years.”

Finally, in a  June 15, policy brief, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities warns: “Our estimate of $615 billion in shortfalls over state fiscal years 2020-2022 is based on the historical relationship between unemployment and state revenues and on the average of the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) and Federal Reserve Board projections. The estimate demonstrates that the federal aid policymakers have provided to date, while helpful, will fall far short…  States hold $75 billion in their rainy day funds, a historically high amount, but far too little to meet the unprecedented challenges they now face.  And, even if states use all of it to cover their shortfalls, that would still leave them about $440 billion short. The shortfalls that local governments, tribes, and territories face are in addition to this.” (emphasis in the original)

The June 15 brief continues: “States must balance their budgets every year, even in recessions. Without additional, substantial federal help, they likely will deeply cut critical program areas such as education and health care, lay off teachers and other workers in even greater numbers, and cancel contracts with many businesses… The coronavirus relief bill that the House passed on May 15, the HEROES Act, includes substantial state and local fiscal relief…. States need robust aid of this nature to avoid making cuts that would further weaken an already weak economy and cause further widespread hardship.”

It is now the end of June, and school superintendents and school boards are trying to figure out how to plan for the 2020-2021 school year, scheduled to begin in mid-August in most places.  When National Education Association Vice President Becky Pringle testified to the U.S. House  of Representatives Education and Labor Committee on June 15, she emphasized the urgency of the need for more federal assistance: “We thank the House for taking bold action to pass the HEROES Act, and we call on Mitch McConnell and the Senate to abandon their wait-and-see approach and act quickly. Schools are already planning for the upcoming school year and all of the new dilemmas—COVID-related and beyond—that it will bring.  They need the certainty that this legislation can offer.”

Congress Must Pass Additional Fiscal Relief to Prevent Alarming Cuts to School District Budgets

There is plenty of confirmation from the experts about the 50 states’ desperate need for additional federal relief dollars for school districts to open public schools next fall. Without immediate help from Congress, state budget cuts will diminish educational opportunity especially for the school districts that serve our nation’s poorest children. We must not take for granted that public schools will be able to provide the same programs for our children as they did before what promises to be a deep recession. The pending school funding crisis—across all 50 states—has received scanty coverage in the press, which has paid more attention to whether, how, and when schools can reopen. Here are the grim fiscal realities.

On May 15, the House passed a new federal relief program—the HEROES Act (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act), but the U.S. Senate went on a Memorial Day Recess prior to even taking up the bill.  Education Week‘s Evie Blad reports: “The HEROES Act would create a $90 billion ‘state fiscal stabilization fund’ for the U.S. Department of Education to support K-12 and higher education. About 65 percent of that fund—or roughly $58 billion—would go through states to local school districts. The bill would also provide $1 billion to shore up state and local government budgets that have been hard hit by declining tax revenues as businesses closed to slow the spread of the virus.”

The HEROES Act passed by the House on May 15 is far from perfect.  The New York Times Editorial Board explains: “The Democratic-led House passed a $3 trillion relief package on May 15. That bill was imperfect but it was something.  Mr. McConnell, on the other hand, has repeatedly said he’s in no hurry for the Senate to offer its own proposal.  He has put talks on an indefinite pause, saying he wants to see how the economy responds to previous relief measures. The Senate may get around to putting together a plan when it reconvenes next month. Or perhaps it will be in July.”

School districts cannot plan for essential staff like teachers, counselors, nurses, social workers, and librarians when their state budget allocations are being reduced right now before the fiscal year ends on June 30—with more state budget cuts projected moving into next fiscal year.  The director of state policy research for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Michael Leachman explains: “As economic projections worsen, so do the likely state budget shortfalls from COVID-19’s economic fallout. We now project shortfalls of $765 billion over three years…. States must balance their budgets every year, even in recessions…  The coronavirus relief bill that the House passed on May 15, the HEROES Act, includes substantial state and local fiscal relief… States will need aid of this magnitude to avoid extensive layoffs of teachers, health care workers, and first responders….”

The Economic Policy Institute’s Josh Bivens rejects Mitch McConnell’s argument that Congress should wait and see about the need for additional federal stimulus dollars: “Congress is currently debating a new relief and recovery package—the HEROES Act—that would deliver significant amounts of fiscal aid to state and local governments—more than $1 trillion over the next two years, all told.  This is a very welcome proposal.  The incredibly steep recession we’re currently in is guaranteed to torpedo state and local governments’ ability to collect revenue.  Further, nearly all of these governments are tightly constrained—both by law as well as by genuine economic constraints—from taking on large amounts of debt to maintain spending in the face of this downward shock to their revenues…  Recent justifications for denying aid to state and local governments sometimes rest on claims that this spending has been profligate in recent years. This is absolutely not so—growth in state and local spending has been historically slow for nearly two decades. Given the importance of what this spending focuses on (education, health care, public order), this decades-long  disinvestment should be reversed, not accelerated due to an unforeseen economic crisis.”

In a Rethinking Schools overview of  the educational impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on public education, Stan Karp emphasizes the need for considerable federal relief funding as well as hard work by advocates to ensure that dollars are distributed to help the school districts likely to suffer the most serious cuts—those which serve concentrations of our nation’s poorest children: “The next state of pandemic politics will include a struggle over the scope and dimensions of additional federal aid for states and cities—and potentially, schools. With millions of public workers facing imminent layoffs and a pivotal national election on the horizon, another large relief package seems inevitable.  Equally inevitable will be efforts to shape the legislation to promote competing political agendas and, especially, to facilitate or oppose privatization and austerity.  The stakes for schools are monumental. According to one Education Week analysis, ‘America’s public schools will need $70 billion for three consecutive years in the next round of federal stimulus spending to avoid painful cuts such as teacher layoffs.’… Public school advocates will need to push Congress hard to fight for policies that promote equity over austerity, that ensure public funds go to public schools and public purposes, and that strengthen rather than weaken federal commitments to educational equity.  Key elements should include: multi-year federal funding with strong requirements that states maintain recent levels of school spending and improve the fairness of their funding systems, (and) distribution of federal aid according to progressive formulas that send more funds to higher-poverty districts and schools….”

For Education Week, Daarel Burnette II demonstrates why some school districts will be more severely affected than others.  Burnette quotes David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center: “What’s so stunning about this recession is that poor districts are going to bear the brunt of these cuts because they rely so heavily on state aid and they don’t have the capacity to raise their property taxes.”

Burnette explains further: “Cuts will fall on most school districts to some degree, but those whose budgets are built largely on (local) property tax revenues will suffer less.  Education Week analyzed 2016 school spending data, the latest available, to identify which districts will be most at risk of harm because of their heavy dependence on state aid.  Education Week‘s analysis shows more than 600 districts get more than 75 percent of their aid from their states, putting them at great risk for deep cuts…”

Who are the students who will be most affected?  According to Education Week‘s analysis: “The districts most at risk share demographic profiles—student populations that are heavily black, Latino and low-income—and one crucial trait of their budgets: They get more than half their revenue from state aid… In New York state—the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak—an analysis done by the Education Law Center shows that an across-the-board percentage cut to K-12 spending, which is how legislatures have historically made budget cuts, will be devastating to a district like Rochester but will have little impact on the public schools in Pittsford, N.Y., a suburb which sits just southeast of the city.  Pittsford, where the median household income is more than $116,000, is majority white…  The 5,000-student district, whose leafy cul-de-sacs are lined with large homes, gets more than 76 percent of its money from property tax revenue and only 23 percent from the state… Rochester has for decades had a fraught relationship with New York’s state legislature over school spending. The district spends around $12,500 per student, roughly $1,000 less than the state average. It’s per-pupil spending on students who require special education is about $29,000, which is $3,000 less than the state average… In 2007, New York agreed to ramp up its K-12 spending after losing a years-long court battle over its funding formula. But the state, which was slammed during the last recession, has failed to live up to that promise… For Rochester, the state has fallen more than $86 million behind its funding obligations.”

Congress must pass an additional federal relief package to prevent lasting damage to America’s public schools. If states are forced drastically to cut school funding, it is likely  that the Covid-19 recession will place the heaviest burden on the school districts least able to raise sufficient dollars by raising local property taxes. The victims will be America’s poorest Black and Brown children living in impoverished communities.

Proposed Rule Change in Food Stamps Program Would Hurt the Working Poor and Make Thousands of Kids Ineligible for Subsidized School Lunch

The Trump administration has proposed cutting access to food stamps—now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program)— for over 3 million families, seniors and people with disabilities.  The administration has threatened to narrow something called broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE) in a way that would not only directly reduce people’s SNAP benefits but would also affect eligibility for free and reduced-price school lunch for hundreds of thousands of children at school.

There is some confusion about what’s being proposed here.  After all, the change is really in the policy weeds, part of a proposed rule change that will not be debated transparently in Congress. Lots of people have said there is inadequate information about the pros and cons of such a change.  In actuality, the issues are clear.

The President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Bob Greenstein released a statement: “Federal law includes a provision that lets states strengthen SNAP’s rules to encourage work and saving among low-income households—two goals that have long had strong bipartisan support—through a policy called broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE).  States can use BBCE to raise SNAP eligibility limits somewhat so that many low-income working families that have difficulty making ends meet, such as because they face expenses for costly housing or child care that consume a sizeable share of their income, can receive help affording adequate food… The Administration’s proposal would dramatically narrow this policy… Children from families who would lose their SNAP benefits under the proposed rule would also lose access to free lunches and breakfasts at school.”

In a longer report, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Dottie Rosenbaum explains that, “without BBCE, a family can lose substantial SNAP benefits from a small earnings increase that raises its gross income over SNAP’s eligibility threshold (130 percent of the federal poverty line, or $2,252 per month for a family of three in fiscal year 2019).  BBCE allows states to lift this threshold and phase benefits out more gradually, which lets households close to that threshold take higher-paying work and still benefit from SNAP.”  BBCE also lets states adjust SNAP asset limits to permit families to save very modestly for emergencies.

While the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue says the rule change is necessary because of “abuse of a critical safety net system,” and while the Heritage Foundation’s Jonathan Butcher says narrowing the BBCE will “ensure that the government is providing resources to the children who are in need and not providing resources to those who are not in need,” defenders of the current BBCE rule disagree.

Bob Greenstein responds: “In trying to make a case for the proposal, the Administration argues that states are approving households for SNAP under BBCE without checking their incomes or assessing their need for food assistance.  The claim is incorrect.  To receive SNAP, all households, including those eligible under BBCE, must apply, be interviewed, and document that their monthly income and expenses, such as high housing and child care costs, leave them with too little disposable income to afford a basic, adequate diet.  Indeed, the Department of Agriculture’s own data show that only about 0.2 percent of SNAP benefits went in 2017 to households with monthly disposable incomes—net income after deducting certain expenses like high housing and child care costs—above the poverty line.  SNAP has some of the most rigorous program integrity standards and systems of any federal program.”

The NY TimesLola Fadulu and Erica Green explain why the administration’s proposed rule change for SNAP eligibility would affect students’ qualification for free and reduced-price school lunch and breakfast: “Right now, households that receive benefits or services from another federal welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), are automatically eligible for food stamps under the rules set by 39 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and the Virgin Islands. In some of those states, households with gross incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty line—which would be about $50,000 for a family of four—are automatically eligible for food stamps.  Children in those households are automatically eligibile for free school meals, too… Under the proposal, fewer families would automatically qualify for food stamps, and in turn, fewer children would get free school meals.  Children in households with gross incomes between 185 percent and 200 percent of the poverty line would no longer be automatically eligible for any food assistance at school.  And children in households with gross incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty line would be eligible for only reduced-price meals.”

The change would also affect the operation of the subsidized meal program for entire school districts.  For Education Week, Evie Blad explains: “(S)chools where a large number of students are directly certified in free meal programs, through participation in SNAP or other federal anti-poverty programs, may provide universal free meals to all students through a federal program called community eligibility.”  Hundreds of thousands of students would lose access to free or reduced-price meals at school, although the Department of Agriculture has not verified the number of schools or students to be directly affected. Evie Blad spoke with one expert who estimates that 265,000 students would lose access to school meals. The NY Times Fadulu and Green estimate that “more than 500,000 students would lose automatic eligibility.”

The NY Times reporters spoke with Representative  Bobby Scott, chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor: “Mr. Scott said his staff were made aware that students would lose their automatic eligibility for free school meals in a phone call on July 22 with staff members from the Agriculture Department. In a letter, he implored Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary, to disclose the figures as part of the department’s regulatory impact analysis, and restart the 60-day comment period: ‘The effect on school meal eligibility represents an important technical finding that must be made public so that stakeholders have the opportunity to comment on all aspects of the rule’s impact.'”

In his statement, Bob Greenstein sorts out exactly what kind of families would be directly penalized by the proposed rule change: “The proposed rule would make it harder for struggling people to make ends meet.  It comes in the aftermath of the President’s 2017 tax law, which conferred large new benefits on the highest-income households… This rule would be particularly harsh for working families with incomes close to SNAP’s gross income threshold of 130 percent of the poverty line, who would be at risk of being cut off of SNAP if they got a modest wage increase or worked slightly more hours.  Taking SNAP away from these families could discourage some recipients from earning additional income. The proposed rule would weaken SNAP’s role in supporting work while making it harder for families that struggle to get by on low wages to meet their basic needs.”

Thanking #RedforEd In Teacher Appreciation Week

Today at the end of Teacher Appreciation Week, we owe special thanks to school teachers this year, thanks that goes beyond our gratitude for teachers’ primary contribution—their daily work to support and inspire our children. In their strikes and walkouts this year, teachers have taught all of us about the the meaning for their students of years of tax cuts and the accompanying drop in state funding for public schools.  And they have taught us to be increasingly skeptical of the diversion of paltry school budgets to an expanding charter school sector.

In #RedforEd walkouts and strikes from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona to Kentucky to North Carolina to Virginia to Los Angeles to Oakland to Denver, teachers showed us how far teachers’ salaries have fallen relative to what people earn in comparable professions. In cities with a high cost of living, we have learned about 35-year-old teachers doubled up in tiny apartments because they can no longer afford the rent for a one bedroom apartment.  This means that school districts are finding it harder and harder to recruit new teachers and retain experienced teachers. Not only do teachers themselves struggle during budget shortfalls, but this year they have also exposed what it means for their students when there are more than 40 students in a class in schools without enough counselors, social workers, nurses, and librarians.

The education budget crisis is widespread and deep.  But teachers have been willing to keep up the fight even when the gains are modest or slow to come.

CNN reported this week that on Wednesday, teachers walked out in at least 25 school districts across Oregon including Portland, the state’s largest school district, which closed schools. Governor Kate Brown has expressed support for teachers and pledged to sign the Student Success Act, which will increase the state’s K-12 education by 18 percent if the legislature passes it. Here are the teachers’ demands in addition to enough money for much smaller classes: “More school counselors. Oregon has half the school counselors that national experts suggest… More school librarians. Currently, there are only 158 school librarians in Oregon—less than one librarian per district.  More school nurses.  There’s only one nurse for every 5,481 students… A restoration of art, music, and physical education programs that have been cut by budget constraints. More funding for school supplies.  The OEA said 94% of teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies…”

After striking a year ago, teachers in North Carolina walked out again this year on May 1, to pressure the state legislature to increase the state’s allocation for education in next year’s state budget.  South Carolina’s teachers joined their counterparts in North Carolina that same day.  Education Week‘s Madeline Will reports: “Teachers in South Carolina are asking for a 10 percent across-the-board raise, smaller class sizes, uninterrupted planning time, and for the state legislature to reduce the amount of standardized and district-mandated testing.”

In Northwest Indiana school districts, the Northwest Indiana Times’ Carley Lanich reported that school administrators joined teachers in a wave of after-school protests to demand a more adequate budget for schools. The final budget wasn’t as generous as teachers hoped, however.  It allocates an additional, “$140 million… for districts to use at their own discretion and $74 million supporting statewide grant programs… (but) the approved budget still failed to include any language specific to teacher pay, despite early pledges of commitment to the issue in a state blighted by teacher shortages.”  Teachers have continued to point out that the new budget allocates an additional $539 million for student tuition in the state’s voucher program.

In West Virginia, teachers walked out again in February for the second time in a year. This time their protests forced the legislature to drop the introduction of charter schools and the launch of an Education Savings Account neo-voucher program in a state that has not previously experimented with school privatization.  After the statewide walkouts by teachers, legislators removed school privatization from an omnibus education bill.  However, a special session, beginning May 20, has been scheduled to reconsider education, and the charters and neo-vouchers are still threatened by the Republican dominated legislature.  The West Virginia Department of Education  has been holding hearings across the state to listen to the concerns of citizens and teachers, who have been actively participating. The Charleston Gazette-Mail‘s Ryan Quinn reports: “State Senator Glenn Jeffries (D-Putnam) said he’d heard a pretty consistent message—teachers say they need help. ‘They need counselors, they need mental health individuals to help them, they need social workers, and they need the freedom to teach.”  In West Virginia, whatever the outcome of the Special Session, teachers have at least forced widespread discussion of charters and vouchers, something other states have merely fast-tracked or buried in budget bills.

While teachers have not always been able to secure huge school budget increases, and while in some cases they have struggled to sustain the gains from last year, in a March report on school funding, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities credits striking teachers in a number of states with creating the political for at least modest budget increases for public education: “Last year, teachers struck or engaged in other protests in five of the 12 states that cut formula funding particularly deeply after the last recession—Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Lawmakers in four of those five states—all but Kentucky—boosted school formula funding last year, at least partially in response to the protests. The funding boosts were substantial, especially in Oklahoma, where lawmakers increased formula funding per student by 10 percent, after adjusting for inflation. Arizona, North Carolina, and West Virginia also increased funding substantially, with the hikes ranging from 3 percent to 9 percent per student after inflation.”

Climbing out of a deep hole takes a long time. The political economist, Gordon Lafer, reminds us about the factors that caused state budgets to crater over the past decade: “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances. In many states, new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed Redmap campaign… In addition, this was the first class of legislators elected under post-Citizens-United campaign finance rules, and the sudden influence of unlimited money in politics was felt across the country… For the corporate lobbies and their legislative allies, the 2010 elections created a strategic opportunity to restructure labor relations, political power and the size of government… The number of public jobs eliminated in 2011 was the highest ever recorded, and budgets for essential public services were dramatically scaled back…  All of this—deunionization, sharp cuts in public employee compensation, and the dramatic rollback of public services—was forcefully championed by the corporate lobbies, who made shrinking the public sector a top policy priority in state after state.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 44-45)

Lafer reminds us that much of the corporate agenda involved an effort to reduce spending on public education: “The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states… Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 129)

During the past year, striking public school teachers in state after state have launched a movement against an effort by big moneyed interests to starve the civic institution our society has established to nurture and educate our children.  We owe enormous gratitude to the teachers who have framed the #RedforEd agenda and united behind it.

A Primer for the Public Education Voter in this Fall’s Midterm Election

The midterm election is only weeks away. The airwaves are filled with attack ads that sensationalize and distort the issues.  Even in states where public education has not emerged as a central issue, it ought to be, because K-12 education and higher education are among the biggest lines in every state’s budget.  Without naming states and without naming candidates or particular ballot issues, today’s blog will serve as a voters’ primer about what to consider on November 6, if you think of yourself a public education voter. These reports present simple information about each state.  If a candidate for your legislature or governor, for example, claims to be an “education” candidate, having invested significantly in education, you can check his or her promises against the facts.  I hope you’ll take a look at how your state has been supporting or failing to support the mass of children who attend public schools and the teachers who serve them.

The Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education put the importance of public schools into perspective: “In fact, the overwhelming majority of students in this country continue to attend public schools with total public school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12 projected to increase by 3 percent from 50.3 million to 51.7 million students. This compares with a 6% enrollment in charter schools and a 10.2% enrollment in private schools, with the majority (75% of private school students) attending religious private schools.”

In 1899, the philosopher of education, John Dewey explained the public purpose of education: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (The School and Society, p. 1)

Public schools are the institutions most likely to balance the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.  Public schools are publicly owned, publicly funded, and democratically governed under law.  Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that public schools provide access for all children. No school is likely to perfectly serve all children, but because public schools are subject to government regulation under law, our society has been able to protect the right to an education for an ever growing number of children over the generations.

Key Resources for Voters in Fall, 2018—Public School Funding

The current decade began as the Great Recession devastated state budgets. While some states have recovered, many have struggled, and some have further cut taxes.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ most recent update on public K-12 funding across the states is A Punishing Decade for School Funding, dated November 29, 2017.  This is the essential annual report comparing public K-12 investment across the states. The numbers remain discouraging: We learn that 29 states continue to provide less total state funding for public schools than they did in 2008, prior to the Great Recession. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also just released its annual report on higher education funding: Unkept Promises: State Cuts to Higher Education Threaten Access and Equity, which notes that in 31 states, per-student funding for public colleges and universities dropped between 2017 and 2018, while average tuition has continued to rise. Along with its report on higher education, CBPP even provides an online tool by which you can call up a short, detailed brief on higher education funding trends in each state.

In May of this year, the American Federation of Teachers published its own fine report on funding of public education across the states, A Decade of Neglect, which concluded: “(C)uts states have made since the Great Recession have led to reduced student math and English achievement, and this was most severe for school districts serving more low-income and minority students, especially in districts that saw large reductions in the numbers of teachers.”  The report describes overall trends followed by a series of two page briefs summarizing and presenting graphically the public school funding trend in each state since the 2004-2005 school year.

Key Resource for Voters in Fall, 2018—Marketplace School Privatization Undermines Democracy and Robs Public Schools of Essential Resources

In his 2007 book, Consumed, the late political philosopher Benjamin Barber reflects on the commodification of public institutions: “It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good.  It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars… than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

Not only is school privatization undemocratic, but it also drains state funding away from public school districts into charter schools and various kinds of tuition vouchers for private school. School privatization laws differ across the states along with the amount of money driven out of state public education budgets into the various school privatization schemes. In June of this year, the Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education jointly published Grading the States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools. The report’s introduction states its purpose: “States are rated on the extent to which they have instituted policies and practices that lead toward fewer democratic opportunities and more privatization, as well as the guardrails they have (or have not) put into place to protect the rights of students, communities and taxpayers. The report ranks the states by the degree to which they have privatized education.

Barber summarizes privatization’s corrosive role—fragmenting and undermining our society: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

As you vote in this fall’s election, please consider the resources suggested here as well as the principles that define public education’s public role in our society.