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.