Chávez: The Federal Government Must Provide Financial Help for Public School Students Now, or We Face Losing an Entire Generation

School districts across the country are making the tough decision between in-person versus remote learning. Regardless of the path they choose, students are returning to a public school system more underfunded than at any time in recent memory.

Direct federal support to state and local budgets is needed now more than ever as local school boards, administrators and teachers wrestle with the public health implications of bringing students back to physical locations under the tightening vise grip of financial constraints.

At the outset of the pandemic, the CARES Act passed with a sense of bipartisan urgency not seen in Washington for decades.

It was a short-term effort tailored for the COVID-19 pandemic and falls far short of what is needed for the long-term success of America’s public schools. Our public education system requires sustainable support if we want to give the next generation a real chance to live out its full potential.

Even the $16.2 billion provided in the legislation signed this spring is a drop in the bucket in tackling pre-COVID hurdles that the pandemic has made nearly unsurmountable.

According to the Learning Policy Institute, the CARES Act covers just under 2 percent of revenue needed for pre-K-12 public education in the 50 states and Washington, D.C., for the 2020-21 school year — just under $300 per student.

And that’s under “normal” circumstances. By comparison, a separate estimate by the Council of Chief State School Officers put the price of safely reopening public schools this year at between $158 billion and $245 billion. The National School Boards Association has called for at least $200 billion for K-12 public schools, with an additional $4 billion minimum dedicated to helping students connect to the internet from home, since millions of public school students lack adequate access.

What’s at stake? Aside from infrastructure, facilities needs and salaries, students coming from families living at or near poverty levels and students with disabilities in need of significant supports and services are falling further behind.

Furthermore, Black, Latino and other historically underserved students will suffer the brunt of budget shortfalls and greater academic losses, exacerbating generations of disenfranchisement. And the shift to remote learning during the pandemic blew a bigger a hole in the homework gap — the inequity in access to broadband and digital resources — that affects all these students.

Without the help of the federal government to directly aid state and local budgets, schools will be left to figure out how to tackle these now herculean tasks with even fewer resources than were available before the pandemic.

State and local economies make up roughly 80 percent of public school funding, and it is clear that when schools open their doors, their student populations will have greater needs due to the abbreviated 2019-20 school year and the pandemic’s effect on limited in-person instruction.

Still, this summer, the executive and judicial branches of the federal government threatened the support of millions of public students before they could even physically return to school.

And although two court decisions overturned Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s “equitable services” rule, deeming her plans to divert emergency pandemic relief funding to private schools illegal, the administration’s position is a clear marker of what we’re up against, as similar efforts to redirect funding away from students in public schools to serve those in private ones are ongoing.

For example, the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue dealt a blow to public schools by allowing publicly funded scholarships to be used at religiously affiliated private schools.

This is the uphill battle facing millions of public educators and students, and the reason the National School Boards Association, its state associations, American Federation of Teachers, the Council of the Great City Schools, National PTA and Council of Administrators of Special Education, among others, are calling on Congress to give explicit support to public schools and localities by enhancing the HEALS Act. This must be done immediately and cover the remainder of the 2020 fiscal year, as well as the one that follows.

Congress should also build upon the education stabilization funding included in the CARES Act and provide grants for public K-12 education. For states, this would help provide some relief to their education budgets in the short term and ensure long-term grant aid to local public school systems.

And to protect the most vulnerable and underrepresented students, the government should fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), ensuring a free public education for students with disabilities that is tailored to their individual needs.

If we don’t act now, the consequences will be dire. In Ohio, for example, 3 out of 5 public school districts will see a net funding cut due to formula offsets under the CARES Act, and across the country, without federal intervention, the jobs of more than 5 million teachers are at stake.

This is a national crisis. Our public schools provide more than an education; they also provide food, child care, socialization, therapy, health care and a host of other services for millions of children. We cannot afford for them to close up shop when the cash flow has stopped. And unlike private schools, they cannot turn away students. This emergency is not the time for partisanship; it is the time for bipartisan national action.

Even as the pandemic has ravaged communities across the country, public schools have engaged with students and their families more than ever before. They have been on the front line of our coronavirus response, feeding families and opening their doors to the children of essential workers.

The best way for the federal government to show appreciation for public schools’ commitment to our students is by covering the very funding gap it created.

Anna Maria Chávez is executive director and chief executive officer of the National School Boards Association and serves as an ex-officio director on its Board of Directors.

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