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Legislative Column: The Summer of Discontent

  • The Summer of Our Discontent

    Jeff Simering, Director of Legislation


    A new flurry of activity in Washington at the onset of summer reflects the daunting challenges now facing American society. The resurgence of the coronavirus, inconsistent federal and state public health directives, economic instability, historic levels of unemployment, closure of our public schools, discriminatory policing, and institutionalized racism have converged at a single moment in history. And the 2020 elections in less than five months complicate how the nation’s elected officials will respond. 

    With nearly unprecedented speed, Congress approved four coronavirus recovery measures totaling some $3 trillion during March and April, but the House and Senate have failed to agree on further economic and public health assistance since then. Federal and state policies, pronouncements, and guidance have been inconsistent. And public behavior has been equally questionable. 

    Over the course of the COVID-19 crisis, the role of public schools in American life has been highlighted like nothing before. The nation’s economy does not function effectively without its schools in full operation. Still, schools have stepped up to the plate in providing millions of school meals, devices, and hotspots to students and families—although everyone longs to do this under more normal circumstances. We have devised all manner of ways to provide instruction as well. 

    Yet, for all the ways that our public schools have risen to the occasion, our federal government’s response has been timid and inadequate. Federal assistance to K-12 schools remains substantially below the level of assistance provided during the less-severe Great Recession of 2009. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) shoveled some $100 billion in financial assistance to elementary and secondary schools, while the four coronavirus enactments to date have provided only $13 billion directly to K-12 schools out of the nearly $3 trillion in coronavirus-related federal spending. Even with an additional $60 billion in the pending House-passed HEROES Act, America’s public schools and their students are being shortchanged by our national leaders.

    Let us look at the numbers. In 2019, the last full year of school operations, K-12 education expenditures totaled $740 billion nationwide. The current federal K-12 recovery assistance provides $13 billion with another $60 billion possibly in the wings. The total is equivalent to about 10 percent of annual elementary and secondary school spending. However, the combined cuts from state and local sources – each accounting for nearly half of all school funding nationwide – is estimated at approximately 20 percent of total revenue, leaving schools with half of their financial shortfall unaddressed. Moreover, many state budgets have not been finalized for the July 1 start of the fiscal year, leaving schools in a further financial quandary and possibly subject to mid-year budget reductions. This is no way to keep our nation’s schools healthy and productive.

    Adding insult to injury, the $13 billion in CARES Act funding for schools passed in March was not made available by the U.S. Department of Education for an entire month, while the application process for the Governor’s emergency funds and higher education were being launched. On top of that, school districts had to wait for their state agencies to set up a local application process that continues in many states to this day. Moreover, only a handful of states had made any of their CARES Act “state relief funds” available to school districts.  Nonetheless, some federal officials, pundits, and advocates have clamored for more accountability for how schools are spending CARES Act funds that they have not even received yet. Accountability appears to be a one-way street 

    In addition, Congress provided payroll withholding tax credits in two of the March coronavirus bills to subsidize private sector employers, but prohibited school districts (as well as other state and local governments) from retaining a portion of their quarterly federal employer withholding payments—like was being granted to the private sector. 

    In short, federal K-12 financial assistance during the pandemic has been woefully inadequate.  And now public-school officials are struggling with plans for the upcoming school year amidst frequently changing federal and state safety guidance, spikes in infection rates, as well as funding uncertainties from both the federal and state levels.  The complexities of providing K-12 education and reopening schools during the ongoing pandemic cannot be overstated.  Providing bus transportation, maintaining social distancing, cleaning and sanitizing, providing masks and protective equipment, protecting vulnerable students and staff, and delivering quality educational services in this public health crisis is a daunting task.  And to do so in the face of revenue reductions and budgetary uncertainties is a challenge of historic proportions for the nation’s schools.

    The Council understands that coronavirus recovery assistance for schools is only one of many major issues that our federal elected officials face this summer. Proposals for policing reforms have been proffered in both House and Senate and by the Trump administration that deserve debate. The long-awaited national infrastructure legislation is likely to be passed by the House before July 4, but it faces an uncertain future in the Senate.  And the annual appropriations process is now underway.

    Nonetheless, Congress and President Trump have paid insufficient attention to the critical needs of the nation’s public schools.  Recent reports from the Learning Policy Institute, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the Association of School Business Officials, the Council of Chief State School Officers and others have underscored the additional school-based coronavirus expenditures and the severe drop in state and local revenues in the upcoming school year.  The Great City Schools letter to Congress in April detailed the financial, staffing, and continuity-of-services challenges ahead for our public schools. Unfortunately, the federal government remains unmoved—so far. Continuing delay is unacceptable and harmful to the nation’s school children and the nation’s economy.  Federal action is desperately needed and needed now.