On March 11, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, COVID-19 relief bill, which will provide $125.4 billion for state K-12 education programs including investments to help kids catch up, provide after-school programs, offer summer enrichment, undertake facilities upgrades and “stabilize and diversify the educator workforce and rebuild the educator pipeline.”
And on April 9, President Biden proposed doubling the annual Title I allocation in the administration’s FY 2022 federal budget proposal. Title I was created in 1965 as a federal supplement to compensate for inadequate state funding for the nation’s school districts that serve concentrations of poor children. It has been chronically underfunded. Chalkbeat explains: “The proposal would take the Title I program from its current $16.5 billion to $36.5 billion… The budget plan also includes a boost for special education funding… more counselors, nurses, and mental health professionals in schools… more for child care and Head Start… a big increase for the relatively small Community Schools program (schools with wraparound medical and social services for families)… and more money for the Office of Civil Rights.” Of course, Biden’s budget is just a proposal for now—the first stage in several rounds of negotiations with Congress before a final federal budget will be passed by September 30.
None of us can fully comprehend what all these billions of dollars will mean. Probably some of us wonder whether they are really needed. In fact, those of us who live in school districts able to pass regular local property tax levies might imagine that all American schools probably look like ours—adequately maintained and at least adequately staffed. But in a nation with roughly 13,500 school districts and 98,000 public schools that serve over 50 million students, most of us can grasp neither the scale of the cost of public schooling across the United States nor the alarming inequity among the schools even in our own state.
Back In 2009, when the Obama administration passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to address the impact of the 2008 Great Recession, none of us could look ahead to see what turned out to be its negative effects on public schools—the Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant Programs, for example. And with the current federal stimulus bill, like the one a dozen years ago, it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen in the next decade. What is clear is that experts who have examined public school investment in the years since Obama’s stimulus package know that its relief dollars for public schools were inadequate. Following the Great Recession public schools took such a serious beating that in many places they had not recovered even before COVID-19 struck. There is considerable evidence today of the need for the new, one-time stimulus dollars and additionally, the long-term increase in Title I spending for the school districts across the United States that serve concentrations of poor children.
The COVID-19 pandemic has actually helped to make educational inequality visible particularly as we have all observed school districts’ unequal access to technology compounded by their students’ unequal access even to basic broadband. But experts have exposed other extremely troubling indicators which point to the importance of the size and scope of the investments President Biden is making available.
The Albert Shanker Institute’s Matthew DiCarlo describes the conclusions of research by Rutgers University school funding experts Bruce Baker and Mark Weber: “There is good news and bad news. The good news is that thousands of districts enjoy funding levels above and beyond our estimates of adequate levels…. The bad news is that these well-funded districts co-exist with thousands of other school systems, some located within driving distance or even in the next town over, where investment is so poorly aligned with need that funding levels are a fraction of estimated costs. To give a rough sense of the magnitude of the underfunding, if we add up all the negative funding gaps in these latter districts… the total is $104 billion…. (W)e report… that funding tends to be more inadequate—or less adequate—in districts with higher Census child poverty rates… We also find a negative relationship between funding inadequacy and the shares of students of color served by districts.”
In their new book, The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire elaborate on the same problem: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’ Act 10 is remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights. But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-36)
And in his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional scholar, Derek Black summarizes what has happened in too many states in the past decade: “Before the recession of 2008, the trend in public school funding remained generally positive… Then the recession hit. Nearly every state in the country made large cuts to public education. Annual cuts of more than $1,000 per student were routine.” But the recession wasn’t the only cause of money troubles for public schools: “(I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33) “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle-income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… But only a couple states provide districts serving predominantly poor students what they need. The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)
And last summer, 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…”
School districts are already weighing the urgent needs they can address with the American Rescue Plan dollars they are set to receive. Chalkbeat Detroit reports that in Detroit, which will receive $1.2 billion, “District leaders plan to spend about half of the funds—$613 million— on addressing a long-running facilities crisis, alleviating pressure from a mounting repair bill that the district hadn’t been able to cover.”
Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum and Kalyn Belsha add that in Hamtramck, a district connected geographically to Detroit, Superintendent Jaleelah Ahmed, “says the new federal aid will allow her district of 3,300 students to finally afford improvements to its buildings, some of which are so old they’re historical landmarks. First on its list: fixing windows that don’t open. Then, Ahmed is hoping to expand after-school and summer programming. That could include more dual enrollment college classes and new ways to engage students with sports, arts, or technology as they work on their English skills. More than two-thirds of her students are English learners, many of whom fled war in Yemen and have acute academic, social, and emotional needs.”
Barnum and Belsha add that in Pennsylvania’s Chester-Upland, a district which has been in receivership since 2012, Superintendent Carol Birks, “hopes to spend the money on air conditioning in schools that lack it, upgrading the district’s IT infrastructure so more students can use laptops in their classrooms, and adding tutoring for younger students… ‘Our goal is not to spend all the money in one year… We’re going to be developing a planning process of what we can take on in year one, year two, so that we do things thoughtfully, purposely, and well.'”
Clearly there are two problems to be addressed by the President’s proposed increase in Title I (assuming that Congress appropriates the funds) and the money for public schools in the American Rescue Plan: (1) a long and alarming problem of school district inequity that overlays already serious racial and economic inequality among American children, and (2) the very unequal impact of COVID-19 for families and the public schools that serve those families. Fortunately the American Rescue Plan dollars are being distributed according to the Title I formula, which means that the bulk of the funding will be targeted to school districts serving our nation’s poorest children.