The year 2020 may prove to be pivotal in the history of U.S. public education. Many children have gone missing from school completely since March, and millions more are struggling with wholly inadequate online learning experiences. Lower-income and minority children are particularly hard-hit.
The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated deep inequities across our public schools. Merely restoring school budgets to their prepandemic levels will not be enough to address them after this long period of limited learning.
Because education is labor-intensive, budget cuts would mean layoffs and pay freezes. This would harm in-class instruction and student progress and well-being at a time when it’s most needed.
Where the money comes from
U.S. public schools are decentralized – there are 50 state systems and the District of Columbia. This limits the role of the federal government. Still, Washington can help.
Superintendents of the nation’s three largest school districts – New York, Los Angeles and Chicago – have called on Congress to appropriate funds for school cleaning and protective equipment, testing and contact tracing, mental health supports and in-person summer school programs. Cost is estimated at US$125 billion nationally.
President-elect Biden has called for nearly $200 billion in new funding for schools and pledged to direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to guarantee schools full access to disaster relief funds.
Given the federal government’s virtually unlimited borrowing capacity at very low interest and Washington’s current appetite for deficit spending, a K-12 investment at the level called for by the superintendents or the president-elect could be folded into a larger relief package aimed at state and local government by the new 2021 Congress.
Any lasting rescue of our K-12 schools, however, must come from the states, which provide, on average, 47% of school revenue. Local districts raise 45%, with the remaining 8% coming from the federal government. And unlike Congress, states must balance their budgets.
State revenues held up better than expected this past spring. Revenues for fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30 in most states, came in higher than expected. That’s largely because the recession primarily hit lower-income workers, who pay less in taxes than their higher-earning counterparts.
Federal aid from the CARES Act, including expanded unemployment benefits, also boosted incomes and spending back in the spring and summer. The act provided about $13.5 billion directly to schools to cover costs of COVID-19 safety measures and related costs.
The higher-than-expected tax revenues, along with the CARES Act funds, helped states cushion the blow to school districts’ current year budgets. For example, in my state of Michigan, K-12 funding for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 was spared from cuts. In fact, districts were given a small, one-time cushion of $160 million to cover COVID-19-related expenses.
Georgia, on the other hand, cut K-12 funding for fiscal year 2021 by nearly $1 billion.
Concerns about education budget cuts for the coming school year are not misplaced. Much of the CARES Act federal aid expired at the end of 2020.
In late December, Congress agreed on a new $900 billion relief package that includes $54 billion for K-12 schools. Most of this aid will be delivered through Title I funding, which goes to schools with concentrations of low-income children. This one-time relief will help schools this year, but some states may reduce their own support for schools in response.
When the new federal aid runs out, will states fill the breach? The current economic outlook is extremely uncertain. As COVID-19 cases continue to surge, our weak but slowly recovering economy could slip back into recession, threatening states’ ability or willingness to adequately fund their schools.
Local districts rely on property taxes, and these revenues have been more stable during the pandemic than the sales and income taxes that fill state coffers. But, with few exceptions, local districts cannot rescue themselves.
States play an essential role in equalizing educational opportunities across rich and poor districts, with most aid distributed by formulas that favor poor districts. As a result, thousands of property-poor and low-income districts rely heavily on state aid.
Right now, researchers say the need for support among poorer districts is enormous and growing. As the pandemic surges into the winter months and schools continue to rely heavily on remote instruction, evidence of student learning loss is mounting.
Researchers from Stanford University analyzed reading and math scores in 18 states and the District of Columbia. They found that, by the end of the 2019-20 school year, the average elementary and secondary school student had lost between a third of a year and a full year in reading progress since March. In math, the loss was from about three-quarters of a year to more than a year. The losses were much more severe for students from economically disadvantaged families.
Another study by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company found similar evidence of learning loss, with greater losses in math than reading and particularly acute losses in schools predominately serving students of color.
Educators may question the precision of these findings, and the Stanford researchers note their estimates of learning loss are based on projected and not actual 2020 achievement scores. More study, including in-class assessments by skilled classroom teachers, will be needed to accurately gauge students’ learning losses.
But two basic conclusions are inescapable. First, remote learning has proven far inferior to in-class learning for the vast majority of students. And second, the consequences have been much more dire for low-income and minority children, who are more likely to be learning remotely while lacking the technology, school support and family resources needed to succeed in that environment.
Left unaddressed, these educational deprivations can have effects that last a lifetime, robbing students of their economic prospects and their potential for rewarding civic participation.
Local districts cannot address these growing inequities and learning gaps on their own. They will need to rely on states and the federal government to not only help restore local school budgets to prepandemic levels, but provide schools with additional resources – including more teachers, counselors, social workers, psychologists, technology and training – to remedy the educational and emotional deficits that have mounted since the pandemic struck in the spring.