Austin Beutner looked haggard, his face was a curtain of worry lines. The principal of the country’s second largest school district sat at a desk last week delivering a video address to families in Los Angeles. But it started with a clear message, clearly intended for another audience:
Lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
“The cuts to school funding will have an eternal impact on the lives of children,” said Beutner less than a week after the California governor called for emergency cuts in education spending. The danger children face from these cuts, warned Beutner, “is just as real a threat to them as the coronavirus.”
Similar alarms are ringing in the country’s districts. With the country’s attention still focused on the COVID-19 health crisis, school leaders warn of a financial crisis that could devastate many neighborhoods and push back a whole generation of students.
“I think we are on the verge of seeing a school funding crisis unlike anything we have ever seen in modern history,” said Rebecca Sibilia, CEO of EdBuild, a school finance organization. “We are looking at devastation that we could not have imagined … a year ago. “
“Truly shocking decline”
Schools receive almost half of their funding from state coffers. But with businesses closed in response to the pandemic and unemployment rates already hovering around 15% – well above its peak of 10% during the Great Recession – state revenues and sales taxes are collapsing.
For April, the first full month of coronavirus closings, states are now reporting “really shocking declines” in tax revenue, says Michael Leachman at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Some states lost “as much as 25% or a third of their revenue from the previous year in the same month,” said Leachman.
And unlike the federal government, most state governments are required to balance their budgets. The result: many state governors and legislators are now rushing to make deep cuts, including funding for schools.
In early May, for example, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine unveiled $ 300 million in Kindergarten to Grade 12 budget cuts until June 30 at the end of the year. current exercise. In Cleveland schools, according to Cleveland.com, this equates to about $ 100 less per student with the possibility of more cuts in the new fiscal year.
A few days earlier, the governor of Georgia had asked public education officials to prepare for a 14% cut in funding starting in July. And in Michigan, a prominent Republican in the State Senate warned superintendents that they could see their school funding cut by 25%.
In many states, these cuts will hit vulnerable and low-income communities the hardest. This is because of the way America funds education. On average, most of a school’s resources come from roughly equal distribution between public and local funding, the latter mainly coming from local property taxes.
But differences in real estate wealth among districts have created decades-old disparities that many states have attempted to reduce with additional public money. As a result, “when state funding begins to drop,” says Michael Griffith at the Learning Policy Institute, “what we see is a separation between the haves and the have-nots.”
Worse than the great recession
At first, experts say the cuts to schools will reflect the losses of the Great Recession. The districts will reduce spending on buildings and transportation, supplies and equipment. Then there will be staff reductions, starting with librarians, nurses and counselors. The United States lost about 120,000 teachers between 2008 and 2010, said Griffith. More than a decade later, “we still don’t have the number of public school teachers we had in 2008.”
The current slowdown due to the pandemic promises to be even more difficult for schools. “Based on the numbers we’re looking at right now, this coming year could be twice as bad, if not more, than the worst year we had during the Great Recession,” said Griffith.
Staff cuts, for example, have already skyrocketed.
“We know that in April school districts fired or laid off almost half a million workers nationwide,” Leachman told the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “It’s an amazing number. It is more than the loss of their jobs during the entire Great Recession. Everything happened in a month. “
Leachman said many of those affected were bus drivers and school staff who were laid off while schools closed for the rest of the school year. Many of them obviously hope to return. “But given the collapse in state revenues, it is likely that unless the federal government steps in … many of these workers will never find their jobs. “
Griffith estimates that if states cut education spending by 15%, schools could be forced to cut more than 300,000 teacher positions, or almost 10% of national kindergarten to grade 12 teachers.
Other school budget experts sing a similar refrain, as do district leaders such as Austin Beutner, who warned in his video speech that schools would need the same emergency injection of resources as hospitals and many companies have already obtained.
“We are looking at the same challenge in public education, and we need the same response thoroughly,” said Beutner.
So far, Congress has offered only a whisper.
Little bipartite appetite for more spending
The $ 2 trillion coronavirus relief bill, known as the CARES Act, provided K-12 schools with more than $ 13 billion in emergency funding, an average increase of about $ 270 per Student. But spending that money has been complicated by controversial guidelines from the United States Department of Education.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos advises public schools to spend much more relief money than planned for student services in private schools. Louisiana, for example, reports that under a traditional reading of the CARES law, its students in private schools would receive services worth $ 8.6 million. According to the department’s broader interpretation, this share would increase to $ 31.5 million, an increase of 267%.
The department’s guidelines, released on April 30, have baffled many principals, prompting the Council of Principals to tell DeVos that if the guidelines were not revised, they “could significantly harm vulnerable students who were expected to benefit the most from the CARES law.
In a response signed by DeVos herself and obtained by NPR, the secretary of education writes: “The ministry does not agree with your interpretation of the law”.
DeVos continues: “All students and teachers have had their learning disrupted. A growing list of non-public schools has announced that they will not be able to reopen, and these school closings are concentrated in low-income countries and I would like to encourage educators around the world to be as concerned about these students and these teachers only by those in public schools. ”
Even without this advice and the confusion it has caused, lawyers say, the relief funds under the CARES law will not be enough. In a letter to congressional leaders earlier this month, dozens of organizations representing teachers, principals and parents asked for at least $ 175 billion more in kindergarten to grade 12 schools.
“Although we do not yet know what the full impact of the new coronavirus that has spread across the country will be,” says the letter, “we know that the economic hardship and the grief and trauma that result from COVID- 19 will be unprecedented for today’s school-aged children. ”
In other words, schools will not only need help to close the dramatic gaps in public spending. They will need more money to pay for the extra things they are asked to do: feed children and families in hard-hit communities, help millions of students make up for the time they have lost. at home and make sure schools are safe when children finally return to class.
So far, however, Congress has shown little bipartisan appetite for more school spending. In mid-May, House Democrats passed the HEROES law, which would provide K-12 schools with an additional $ 60 billion, but parliamentary minority leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Rejected the decision, stating, “This is a political messaging bill that has no chance of becoming law. ”