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Budget & Finance

Learn From the Last Recession and Boost School Funding, Witnesses Tell Congress

By Evie Blad — June 15, 2020 4 min read
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After the Great Recession, Congress failed to provide enough relief to schools to shield them from devastating consequences, witnesses told a House committee Monday. And as the country confronts another economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers should ensure they don’t repeat that mistake, they said.

“Unless the federal government provides immediate relief, it won’t be a question of whether education will be cut, but how deep those cuts will be,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee.

The discussion came as Congress, and the Trump administration, weigh whether to pass another relief package—and whether it should include more funding to shore up state and local budgets amid steep revenue declines. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said Congress will assess the need for additional aid in July.

Meanwhile, Republicans on the committee suggested “reopening the country,” including its schools, would help boost tax revenues. And some questioned the need for additional federal funds.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the committee’s ranking member said there has not yet been an analysis of how previous federal aid provided in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—which President Donald Trump signed in late March—has been spent.

“Yet here we are, with Democrats pushing those same taxpayers to dole out more of their hard-earned money at a time when many Americans are tightening their belts,” she said.

Witnesses outlined an array of financial challenges facing schools as they reopen buildings following extended closures: increased student needs, continued demands for increased internet and technology access, and pending massive state budget shortfalls. Most pushed for additional designated federal education aid that goes beyond what was provided in the CARES Act, which directed $13.5 billion for public school budgets.

“That’s far too little to meet the extreme fiscal challenges that schools face,” said Michael Leachman, a vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The left-leaning think tank estimates that state budget shortfalls will surpass those triggered by the 2008 recession, totaling $615 billion over the next three state fiscal years. That could force schools to make drastic cuts in staffing and programs as they scramble to meet new needs created by school closures, and to adopt precautions recommended to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Leachman said.

In the last two months, states and local governments have furloughed or laid off more than 1.5 million workers, about half of them employed by school districts, he said.

After the last recession, 17 states had cut per-pupil funding by more than ten percent by 2011, Leachman said. Yet nine years later, as COVID-19 closed buildings, schools still hadn’t fully recovered, he said, noting that they had 77,000 fewer total employees than they did before the 2008 recession, even though they enrolled about 1.5 million additional children.

Eric Gordon, the CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, told the committee of potential factors that could force him to cut his district’s budget by 25 percent. These include a forecasted $23 million reduction in state aid; the elimination of $12 million in state funds designed to provide wrap-around services; a projected loss of $67 million local tax renewal, and a drop in local tax collections in the district returns to “recession-era collection rates.”

Such a massive budget cut would force him to eliminate positions mid year in the high-poverty district, which has become one of the state’s fastest improving school systems, which would “essentially wipe out the 10 years of growth my team and I have achieved,” Gordon said.

When schools were forced to close under a March state order, Cleveland worked quickly, he said. More than 40 percent of students had no internet in their homes, and 68 percent had no device other than smart phone. So teachers provided remote lessons on phone apps, like Instagram, and they sent materials home. The district redirected funds to buy devices and hotspots for students, and it set up telephone hotlines for homework support and family crisis.

Re-opening will depend in part on state guidelines, Gordon said. Some children may continue to learning remotely for portions of the week, and the district will likely return kids with the highest needs—students with disabilities, English-language learners, and young students—to buildings for the most in-person instruction.

North Carolina State Superintendent Mark Johnson, invited by Foxx, did not focus on his state’s financial need in his testimony. But, like other members of the panel, he encouraged federal support for broadband expansion, noting that inconsistent internet access has been a big challenge for students. He called solutions like wireless hotspots “band-aid” fixes.

“States also led the switch to remote learning practically overnight,” Johnson said. “North Carolina is a leader in digital education strategies, but even as advanced and fortunate as we are, no state was ready for the switch from 0 percent remote learning to 100 percent remote learning over a weekend.”

Johnson said districts in his states have not yet started spending CARES Act funds. He said North Carolina intends to use its funding for professional development to help teachers strengthen remote teaching and materials to help support personalized learning to help students get on track academically.

“Now, this innovation is more important than ever,” Johnson said.

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