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Will the Coronavirus Shake Up How States Distribute K-12 Money?

By Daarel Burnette II — June 09, 2020 6 min read
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School leaders have concluded that, in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, school days will have to look vastly different this fall, as they brace for altered schedules, a mix of in-person and distance learning, and other shakeups.

Faced with that—and the likelihood of drastic budget cuts this summer because of plunging state sales and income tax revenue—administrators in several states want legislators to rethink how they distribute money to districts this fall.

For example, should schools still be given money based on attendance even though many fearful parents will likely decide not to send their children back to school?

Should class-size limits be expanded for virtual instruction since physical class sizes will have to be so much smaller due to social distancing? That would give them more flexibility to lay off more teachers to deal with budget cuts.

And should districts be given extra money to lengthen the school year to make up for the 2019-20 school year’s lost learning time? Or, conversely, should they be allowed to save money by shortening the school year?

It all adds up to a bid for greater flexibility.

Many administrators say they won’t be able to afford to open school this fall if they have to abide by the existing rules.

A school district’s revenue is dictated by a series of assumptions and expectations state lawmakers over the years have made about the goings-on in a school day. Administrators and many advocates have long argued that many of those policies are nonsensical and intrude on local control.

“Many of them are bad ideas in normal times, but they’re heinous ideas in times of crisis,” said Aaron Garth Smith, the director of education reform for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, who is pushing Michigan lawmakers to overhaul the K-12 funding formula to help prepare districts to make more than $1 billion worth of cuts.

But civil rights advocates have urged caution.

“We should be granting districts waivers where it’s appropriate and necessary,” said Ary Amerikaner, the vice president for P-12 policy, practice, and research for EdTrust, a group that advocates for poor students and children of color. “But we should be taking into account that these compliances aren’t just hoops we make people jump through but they’re civil rights protections to make sure vulnerable kids get the resources they need.”

Here are some questions facing state lawmakers about three big factors that help determine K-12 spending and where school districts now want temporary waivers.

Should states or districts determine the number of school days and their length in 2020-21? Most state laws require that school districts start the school year by late summer/early fall and end it by late spring/early summer. And many states dictate the number of hours and minutes students must be in front of a teacher each day. States allot money accordingly, and with that money districts pay their teachers to work according to that schedule.

But the pandemic forced administrators to shut down school months before the expected last day of school this year. Administrators now, based on their students’ academic needs and the local coronavirus infection rates, have varying ideas on when school should start back up and how long it should last.

Many administrators worry that students will need more class time in order to make up for the learning loss and President Donald Trump, along with some governors have urged school districts to open their schools early this summer in order to help parents get back to work. But administrators say if they’re asked to extend the school year by several weeks, they should be provided more money to provide those services.

Meanwhile, districts in areas with high COVID-19 infection rates say they won’t be able to afford the extraordinary efforts needed to stop the spread of the virus this fall and have asked states to allow for them to open their doors much later this year. Wyoming has already provided such waivers on school start time, allowing districts to choose their own start date.

There’s also a group of administrators who say the best way to avoid teacher layoffs in the face of budget cuts is to temporarily furlough teachers next school year and offer students fewer school days than state law requires. Anticipating COVID-related budget cuts, Portland, Ore., this year furloughed its teachers for one day a week in order to save millions of dollars.

Should districts be allowed to increase virtual class sizes above state law?

States’ average class size laws are one of the biggest reasons why school spending has exploded in recent decades. Districts had to hire on thousands more teachers and paraprofessionals to prevent classroom overcrowding and allow for more individualized instruction.

But those rules don’t really make sense during a pandemic, administrators argue.

Districts this fall will have a hard time keeping students socially distant from one another, and some administrators are contemplating both dramatically lowering their in-person class sizes and dramatically increasing their virtual class sizes.

Administrators will be able to save more money if they’re able to virtually place more students in front of a qualified teacher, allowing them to lay off more teachers.

But teachers and administrators have warned that a big class size—whether in person or online—is still a lot of work and that students this fall, more than ever before, will need more one-on-one time with teachers. They also object to the idea of laying off teachers.

North Carolina legislators are considering a bill that would waive class-size requirements for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Utah’s state board of education is proposing that the legislature cut more than $150 million given to schools to keep class sizes low.

“The biggest cost for us is having additional staff,” Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh, the deputy superintendent of San Francisco schools said about the district’s ability to open up this fall. “If the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines called for smaller class sizes, not more than 10-12 students in a classroom, then that probably involves hiring more teachers and adults in general to support that social distancing.

“But this is all happening at a time when, in most states, districts are looking at enormous budget deficits,” said Leigh. “It’s hard to square those two sets of factors. We also have to consider what an individual teacher, can reasonably be expected to do when you double or triple the number of kids they’re serving.”

Should schools be given money based on how many kids walk through the door this fall?

In several states, one of the biggest factors that determine how much state aid districts get is their average daily attendance over a set period of time.

District administrators have long complained that low-income school districts with high absenteeism and mobility rates should not be given less money simply because students don’t show up to school. (States argue it’s the best way to determine enrollment and spending needs.)

But this fall, administrators expect that many parents will be too scared to send their students back to school because of the pandemic. They also wonder how they will be able to accurately count students when many will be learning virtually. They want legislatures to determine district revenue based on last fall’s enrollment.

In their letter to California’s legislature, superintendents of the state’s six largest school districts asked lawmakers to fund schools based on an average three-year enrollment trends, rather than a moment in time this fall and to provide funding for absent students infected with the coronavirus.

Congress will likely decide this month whether or not to provide states with another bailout package. The vast majority of states’ legislatures will then reconvene to rewrite their budgets. Teachers unions and school districts’ lobbyists are gearing up for an animated debate. Read our coverage about this summer’s special sessions here.