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Budget & Finance

The Education World Wants a Coronavirus Stimulus. What Would Help the Most?

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 22, 2020 8 min read
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This post has been updated to reflect a revised version of Senate Republican coronavirus stimulus legislation released Sunday:

As schools have shut down across America, the nation’s education community is beginning to pressure Washington for stimulus funding to help weather the coronavirus pandemic. But what could and should a K-12 stimulus actually look like?

Legislation from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to shore up the nation’s economy amid the coronavirus pandemic, introduced by the Kentucky Republican on March 19, is moving fast— a final vote in the Senate is expected soon. An updated version of the legislation released March 22 includes a few key provisions regarding education spending.

  • The legislation would create an Education Stabilization Fund of $20 billion for K-12 education and higher education; at least 60 percent of that money would be for K-12 schools. Sixty percent would be distributed to states using the Title II-A formula, and districts would have to receive at least 80 percent of that funding from states via the Title I formula. These funds could support activities authorized under laws like the Every Student Succeeds Act and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act; planning for long-term closures; helping to sanitize schools; provide mental health supports, and purchase educational technology.

  • In addition, 10 percent of that $20 billion program would go to a Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. Governors could use that money to support local K-12 districts as well as colleges and universities.

The bill hit a stumbling block, however, when it failed a procedural vote March 22.

The lack of funding in McConnell’s initial coronavirus bill, released March 19, prompted a quick response from a coalition of seven national education groups, including the two national teachers’ unions.The coalition wrote to Congress on March 21 that they were “gravely concerned by the complete lack of fiscal support for public schools” in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. They also included a list of what a stimulus bill should have, including:

  • A State Fiscal Stabilization Fund to shore up state government budgets and help them address education funding, amid other priorities. The 2009 stimulus included a program by the same name, to the tune of $53.6 billion—now the groups are asking for $75 billion.
  • A massive investment in remote learning technology for students to address the “homework gap.” This would include $2 billion in aid to the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program and additional flexibility. (On March 18, the FCC did provide a small measure of flexibility from E-Rate rules, and officials are looking at freeing up more money to boost in-home connectivity.)
  • Significantly increased federal funding for Medicaid, which is the third-largest single source of funding for public schools.

“It is imperative that the final bill include emergency funding available to states for public schools,” the unions and the other groups wrote to Congress in the letter.

However, although McConnell’s revised bill from March 22 does include a stabilization fund, its $20 billion figure is far short of what those groups asked for, and smaller than the 2009 stimulus version of that fund.

It’s too early to know what the final stimulus legislation President Donald Trump signs will include—Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said Sunday that the House will introduce its own coronavirus stimulus bill, indicating that a deal on such legislation isn’t very close. And it’s not clear how the fact that most schools are shut down, and some are not providing remote learning to students, will factor into lawmakers’ decisions about what schools, educators, and students need.

In addition, the pandemic differs from the Great Recession. The nation’s political leadership has changed, and schools will be affected by mass closures and traumatized students in unprecedented ways.

‘These Kids are Going to Fall So Far Behind’

We also spoke with four people in the education policy community about what a federal stimulus for education should include and other factors that should impact decisions on this. Their thoughts are below.

• David DeSchryver, Senior Vice President of Whiteboard Advisors:

In response to previous traumatic events affecting specific schools, Congress has focused on sending money to schools through programs like Title IV and Project SERV, which address student well-being and recovery from violent events and natural disasters, respectively. When DeSchryver contemplates that sort of approach to the coronavirus pandemic, he has a simple response: “No.”

This situation is unlike the Great Recession, he noted, because people right now are not socializing, spending money, and going to school the way they did even when the economic crunch hit hardest in 2008 and 2009. What happens to schools, he wondered, when the lights just go off?

The biggest concern for policymakers, he said, should be to recognize that schools are a “cornerstone” of the economy that, when properly functioning and resourced, give parents in turn the ability to contribute to the broader economy. What might be necessary, he said, is a revival of the Education Jobs Fund, a $10 billion program to help schools preserve educators’ jobs in the 2010-11 academic year.

“How do you support them at home and ensure that they have the ability to focus on their jobs?” DeSchryer said. “Can you provide the teachers and staff that level of security [so] that they will have a job? That will enable others to make sure that they’re making the right investment.”

• Sarah Abernathy, Deputy Executive Director of the Committee for Education Funding:

Education got $100 billion in the 2009 stimulus, Abernathy (whose group advocates for federal education spending) noted, and she doesn’t see a reason why schools should get less so that they can deal effectively with the coronavirus.

In the short term, she said, the federal government should see where it can support distance learning, includng good curriculum resources for distance learning, nutritional programs for students, and additional counseling for students where possible. Title I for low-income students and special education should also get consideration, Abernathy said. And further down the road, Washington should also recognize that as states start formulating new budgets in 2021, their revenue sources are going to have taken a huge hit, she added.

Abernathy also said that while the McConnell bill is still a work in progress, additional coronavirus relief legislation in the next several weeks could be a new opportunity for K-12 education to get more resources.

“Any stimulus bill is going to have to include appropriations beyond checks for individuals,” she said.

• Marguerite Roza, Director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University

School budgets this year aren’t a real problem, Roza said, especially because most schools don’t have to worry for the moment about paying for things like professional development or people like substitute teachers. But next year, she said, school districts are going to suffer a “devastating blow” in the form of lost state and local revenue because of the economic decline. Her advice for districts for the time being? “Stop spending.”

Roza said there’s not necessarily a rush to get an education stimulus out the door in McConnell’s bill. But she also said policymakers need to recognize districts’ lack of flexibility in the face of this kind of crisis.

“I would probably be trying to couple some stimulus with some encouragement, whether it’s around pension systems or something else, [toward] financial sustainability over the long haul, so we don’t find ourselves in this position every time” there is a major economic downturn, Roza said.

• Rebecca Sibilia, CEO of EdBuild:

While the 2009 stimulus focused in large part on amping up available revenue sources, Sibilia (whose group studies inequities in education spending and other policy areas) said she doesn’t think that’s a good idea this time around for Washington.

She also said it would be “tone deaf” to put a very large emphasis on pouring money into virtual education and online learning infrastructure. Instead, Sibilia said, there should be a recognition of the potential impact the virus is going to have on rural and urban students in particular—in large part, she noted, suburban students will come through the pandemic without too much damage— and get as many mental-health supports to those students as possible to help them deal with their traumatic experiences.

“How do we get counselors and therapists to kids who are going to be going through he hardest time of their lives so far?” SIbilia said. “These kids are going to fall so far behind that our achievement gap is going to grow.”

As for Capitol Hill, some sort of grand bargain for an education stimulus is possible, in Sibilia’s view. If Democrats agree to put relatively few restrictions on how local school districts spend money from a new stimulus, and Republicans, meanwhile, agree that states have to jump through certain hoops in order to access the money that would alter how they fund schools, then a significant infusion of federal cash for schools might get sufficient traction in Washington. For example, she said, if a district wants to spend federal stimulus money to help students connect with therapists over the phone, she said, there should be no impediment.

“Our community and emotional needs are going to far surpass our core educational needs,” she said.

Read the March 21 letter from the unions and other national education groups to Congress below:

Photo: Angie Andrade and her children, from left, Angel, 10, Austin, 7, and Abigail, 3, pick up free sack lunches at J.T. Saldivar Elementary School in Dallas, Texas. --Lynda M. Gonzalez/The Dallas Morning News via AP

Follow us on Twitter @PoliticsK12. And follow the Politics K-12 reporters @EvieBlad @Daarel and @AndrewUjifusa.

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