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.”