By Mary McKillip
As the COVID-19 crisis extends into the 2020-21 school year, the full impact of the pandemic on state funding for K-12 public education continues to unfold. But what is already clear is that every state is experiencing sharp revenue declines due to business closures, the economic slowdown, and sharp increases in layoffs and unemployment.
For K-12 education, two key dynamics are in play as states enact FY21 budgets and respond to the pandemic. The first is the likelihood of cuts in state school aid and the harsher impact of those cuts on higher poverty districts. Because these aid cuts are recurring, they can cause structural deficits in state support for public education over the longer term.
The second is the infusion of non-recurring federal emergency funds appropriated by Congress to address the impacts of COVID-19 on public schools. How states use and distribute federal funds will not only affect the resources available to tackle issues created by the pandemic, including the digital divide and a safe return to in-person instruction, but can also set the stage for structural deficits in state budgets when these federal funds are depleted.
Advocates across the country are already mobilizing efforts to maintain adequate state support for public education during and after the pandemic. To assist those advocacy campaigns, Education Law Center’s Resource Equity Research Project will track and analyze state decisions on school aid cuts and the distribution of emergency federal funds during the pandemic, with a focus on the impact on higher poverty school districts.
ELC’s analysis of recently enacted school aid cuts in Texas and Michigan is available here. Access ELC’s prior report on New York’s aid cut, or “pandemic adjustment,” through the same link.
Texas and New York followed a playbook from the 2009 Great Recession by cutting over $1 billion in state aid, an amount equal to the one-time federal funds provided for emergency relief for public schools under the CARES Act. In both states, the cuts are disproportionately higher in districts segregated by poverty and those most in need from COVID-19.
Michigan approved a state aid cut of $175 per pupil in every district, totaling $256 million. The state then added $512 from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), providing $350 per pupil to every district, along with $351 million through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund under the CARES Act. Michigan’s combination of aid cuts and allocation of federal funding treated all districts the same, without regard to need, thus continuing the state’s longstanding pattern of “flat” school funding.
A critical factor when analyzing state school aid cuts is the need for greater resources in districts serving high proportions of students in poverty. These districts – underfunded by states before the pandemic – typically depend more on state aid and are less able to offset cuts by increasing local property taxes. The pandemic adds an entirely new dimension: the increased need for resources, especially in higher poverty districts, to address the impact of COVID-19 on students, teachers, and schools. These resources include technology and internet connection for remote learning; meals and other support services; personal protective equipment (PPE); ventilation, lower class sizes and other building improvements; and teachers and support staff sufficient to resume in-person instruction for students experiencing learning loss and trauma.
In the Great Recession, states responded to revenue declines by making significant, recurring cuts in state school aid. Then they offset those cuts with non-recurring federal stimulus relief. This caused deep structural deficits in state support for K-12 education that continued long after the Recession ended.
As the pandemic unfolds, ELC’s research shows that states are following the same budget cutting strategy as they did in the Great Recession. States are failing to build a firewall to shield K-12 public education from devasting aid cuts. They are also not distributing federal emergency funds “progressively,” that is, allocating more of those funds to districts with the greatest need.
Public schools, especially those serving low-income communities, need more – not fewer – resources to meet the monumental challenges of COVID-19. The closing of schools has affected students, teachers, and administrators in unprecedented ways. Because of COVID-19, school districts have a pressing need for even more resources for the 2020-21 school year and beyond. This need is greater in high poverty districts where students will not only experience significant learning loss, but also the trauma and stress of extended separation, loss of family members, widespread unemployment, homelessness, and the absence of any significant support services from their schools over a period of months. It is both mistaken and shortsighted for states to reduce support for K-12 public education at the very time when schools need more resources to respond to the call for reopening safely and responsibly.
Mary McKillip is a Senior Researcher at Education Law Center
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