Experts Warn of Harm to Public Schools Caused by Budget Shortfalls

A custodial staffer sprays disinfectant in a high school classroom in Brownsville, Texas, on March 11, 2020. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Lawmakers met with education experts Monday to address the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on state budgets, which has put public schools and students in a precarious position where historic shortfalls and more teacher layoffs are looming.

Schools across the U.S. closed en masse in March, with the National Center for Education Statistics finding 55 million students spanning 124,000 public and private schools were impacted by closures at the height of the Covid-19 crisis this spring, including interruptions to learning, nutrition and social welfare programs.

The pandemic also triggered the worst U.S. financial crisis since the Great Depression, sending direct shockwaves through public school systems, many of which are still hamstrung from deep cuts to education following the 2008 recession.

Last week, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell called the pandemic “the biggest economic shock in the U.S. and in the world, really, in living memory.” America went from the lowest level of unemployment it had seen in 50 years to the highest level in close to 90 years over just two months. Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office forecast that unemployment – currently at 16.3% – will remain over 8% through the end of 2021.

Most states are required to pass a fiscal budget by July 1 and that is when decisions about teacher layoffs or cuts to school programs will be made unless substantial federal aid is delivered, Michael Leachman, vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, testified to the House Committee on Education and Labor on Monday.

To avoid adding more weight to an economy buckling under the pressure of a global pandemic and thrusting more students and teachers into the fray, Leachman and others like Rebecca Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association, and Eric Gordon, CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, called for Senate approval of the House-passed $3 trillion Heroes Act.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has waved off the bill as a Democrat wishlist and it is certain to remain in the legislative graveyard in its current formation. But with talks of another round of relief rumbling in the Senate, Democrats in the House continue to hold hearings like the one Monday to highlight the need for speedy additional investment.

Gordon testified that of the roughly $26 million Ohio received through the CARES Act, $15 million has been funneled to “unplanned” expenditures related to the pandemic. The budget for the Cleveland school district, where 86% of students are children of color, also took a $5.6 million hit to educational aid this year. Balancing the budget without additional federal funding means layoffs are inevitable, Gordon said.

According to the district’s estimate, with Ohio losing a potential $127 million in revenue over the next year because of the pandemic, Cleveland schools could see an estimated $23 million shortfall for K-12 programs.

Those reductions cut into the provision of personal protective equipment for students and teachers when schools reopen, as well as access to equipment for distance learning like laptops or other devices, which are particularly important for low-income students.

Gordon noted that 1,900 students in his district are homeless on any given day and more than 40% of families have no access to high speed internet. Some 68% only have access through a cellphone, creating hurdles for teachers who have, in some cases, worked around the problem by posting assignments to Instagram.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 12.6 million American children under 18 live in poverty, with a disproportionate impact on black, Latino and Asian communities.

If more teachers are laid off because federal funding isn’t approved, students’ education will be sacrificed, said Pringle, of the National Education Association. The union has forecast at least 2 million teacher layoffs in the next three years without intervention.

Layoffs will also impact school bus drivers and administrative support staff, hobbling operations that are already challenged by the prospect of virus mitigation teaching plans for the fall. Alternate school days where half of a student body might attend class in person while the others learn remotely or extending school hours into the evening are on the table as state officials feel their way through the summer.

“We know we cannot open our schools safely without additional funds,” Pringle said. “For us to think we’re going to send our students back to school safely and provide them with the quality education that we all believe they deserve – we know that cannot happen so we need the Senate to act right now.”

Mark Johnson, the first Republican to be elected as North Carolina’s superintendent of public instruction in 100 years during the 2016 election, told lawmakers while his concern over students receiving the best possible education amid the pandemic was his chief priority, additional immediate investment may not be necessary.

The North Carolina Board of Education approved distribution of $356 million for school funding in late May but Johnson said Democratic Governor Roy Cooper has yet to spend that money or offer a budget. The governor’s office did not immediately return request for comment Monday.

“We’re still waiting on what the plan will be,” Johnson said, asking Congress to find out where the money is being spent.

In that vein, committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., signaled he will continue to watch over how federal agencies like the Department of Education manage funding. Last week,  Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued a rule constraining student eligibility for access to the $6 billion in emergency aid set aside for the department during the pandemic.

The rule stipulates that only those students already receiving federal aid can take emergency funding, making undocumented students, students with criminal convictions or those who have defaulted on their loans ineligible for help.

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