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Legislative Column: Ignoring the Public-School Financial Crisis

  • Ignoring the Public-School Financial Crisis


    Jeff Simering, Director of Legislation

    In this election year, even the reopening of schools has become politicized. Yet the looming question of how schools will operate financially through the 2020-21 school year has been virtually ignored by our federal leaders. Ever-changing guidance from state education officials; garbled pronouncements from federal health officials; governors overruling local public health directives; safety issues raised by union leaders; divided public sentiment; and demands for in-person instruction by President Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have complicated reopening decisions for local school officials in a way that is without precedent. Still, the financial sustainability of K-12 education services for the entire school year has been generally overlooked by our political leaders.

    As political indifference mounts, pandemic-related costs continue to grow, including expenses for personal protective equipment, deep cleaning and sanitation, retrofitting and upgrading building systems, technology and connectivity, acquisition of online curriculum and platforms, social-distancing reengineering, transportation restructuring, student and staff health screening, creation of isolation rooms, reworking school food services, and providing intensive professional development support. With state and local school revenues projected to decline by 20 percent or more, there is not enough K-12 money to maintain public school staff and services at traditional levels. And the economic downturn and high unemployment levels foreshadow school revenue projections that are bleak for the foreseeable future.

    School districts and states are exhausting financial reserves, implementing hiring freezes, resorting to budget placeholders, and hoping for emergency help from an unresponsive federal government. Some states have deferred funding cuts until after the upcoming elections or the start of 2021, and some school districts have delayed painful budget revisions until the first few months of the new school year. Other school districts have had no choice but to begin staff layoffs of dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of personnel.

    During the Great Recession in 2008, the federal government provided nearly a $100 billion in financial recovery assistance to school districts under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act legislation.  Yet during the current crisis only $13 billion in direct financial aid to school districts has been provided, despite nearly $3 trillion in recovery assistance being provided to other sectors in four federal supplemental appropriations measures passed so far this year. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that significant federal financial aid to other sectors has trickled down to schools, other than in California and several other states. The major national K-12 education organizations have jointly requested a $200 billion-plus package of financial aid, including $175 billion in stabilization grants, an additional $25 billion split between the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Title I and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), additional E-Rate assistance for devices and connectivity, and access to the same payroll tax credits that private sector employers (including private and charter schools) have already been granted.

    Let us be clear, substantial and immediate federal recovery aid for schools is desperately needed, and the United States government is the only entity in the nation that can print money. State and local governments must operate with balanced budgets and must cut operations when revenues decline. Only the federal government has the authority and the resources to help public schools maintain critical services for the nation’s school children. It is long past time for the President and Congress to stop posturing and debating, and start appropriating and enacting.