K-12 school districts warn of ‘disaster’ from covid-19-related budget cuts

“[D]ark clouds are forming on the educational horizon that will spell disaster if Congress does not intervene,” the letter said. “Significant revenue shortfalls are looming for local school districts that will exacerbate the disruption students have already faced. Some 40 to 50 percent of school district revenue, in fact, come from local sources that are expected to drop precipitously in the months ahead. This revenue decline will come on top of revenue losses in the months to come from state sources that have been more widely reported. Several big city school districts are now projecting 15 to 25 percent cuts in overall revenue going into next school year.”

In California on Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) released a budget analysis showing a $54.3 billion budget deficit through next summer, with projections that the K-12 public schools could lose some 20 percent of their state funding. The superintendents of the two largest school systems in California — Austin Beutner of the Los Angeles Unified School District District and Cindy Marten of the San Diego Unified School Districts Superintendent — warned that “irreparable harm” would be done to children if that happened.

Meanwhile, some districts around the country have already started furloughing and even laying off some employees.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in California has begun laying off dozens of employees, as has New Jersey’s Lawrence School District, which let go 22 full-time employees and 80 school aides; and the Randolph Public School District in Massachusetts, where dozens of workers — including teaching aides and food service staff — were told they will be furloughed full time or part time. Many other districts warned their communities of coming furloughs and layoffs.

Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said on Thursday that Congress must help states balance their budgets because otherwise “it’s going to come at the expense of education.”

“Virginia showed what happens with these shortfalls. Just recently, the General Assembly came back and had to adopt budget adjustments that canceled a 2 percent raise for [K-12] teachers, funding for high-poverty schools and more counselors, and freeze on [college] tuition,” said. “All of that is because of revenue estimates.”

Similar cuts are happening in other states. For example:

  • In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) proposed a 3 percent increase in education funding for 2020-21 before the pandemic started. That never happened. Instead, in early April, he and the state legislature approved a budget that cut $1.1 billion from K-12 education, the exact amount that Congress had allocated to New York school districts in March as part of its $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as the Cares Act. The hardest hit was New York City, which lost $716.9 million with Cuomo’s cut, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Education Law Center. That analysis also said the state educations cuts most impact high-poverty school districts.
  • In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) has ordered all state agencies to cut as much as 20 percent of their budgets for the remainder of the current fiscal year, which ends in that state on June 30. For K-12 public schools, his plans call for $300.4 million, with cuts targeted in the wealthiest districts.
  • In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp (R) told state agencies to cut 14 percent from their budgets for the next school, and federal coronavirus aid won’t come close to covering that.

Even before the covid-19 pandemic, some states had never fully recovered from education funding drops that started after 2008 because of the Great Recession. The nonprofit Center on Budget & Policy Priorities reported last year that in seven states, combined state and local school funding in the 2017 school year was at least 10 percent below prerecession levels in inflation-adjusted terms. And it said, in all, 22 states plus the District of Columbia remained below prerecession levels.

But the letter from the Council of the Great City Schools to Congress with the signatures of 62 superintendents asking for assistance said the harm caused to districts because of the economic downturn caused by covid-19 will be “far more severe and promises to cause much more substantial damage” than that from the Great Recession.

“Unlike in 2008 and 2009, schools nationwide had to close in mid-March and will likely stay shuttered through the balance of the school year,” the letter said. “As aggressive as schools have been in providing instruction at a distance, districts continue to need resources to provide electronic learning devices and Internet connections to every child. The amount of time devoted each day to lessons is less now than what would occur in a regular classroom. Students’ ability to interact with their teachers remains limited. Some teachers will have little more than a crash course on how to conduct online learning. And, the research on the efficacy of virtual learning is not particularly strong. The truth is that there is simply no substitute for students being with their teachers all day.”

The superintendents asked for far more money than the $13.5 billion that Congress allocated for K-12 education in the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the Cares Act, it passed in March.

“The down payment you made in our public education system by allocating some $13.5 billion in the Cares Act for our schools was a critical lifeline for public education in this country,” the letter said. “But we now urge you to provide a second, substantially larger installment for public school systems as you work on the fourth supplemental appropriations bill.”

Specifically, they are seeking in new funding:

  • $175 billion in Educational Stabilization Funds distributed to the local level through the Title I formula, which provides funding for low-income students
  • $13 billion for the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act
  • $12 billion in additional Title I program funding
  • $2 billion for E-Rate, and emergency infrastructure funds that include public schools. E-Rate stands for the Schools and Libraries Program, which gives discounts of up to 90 percent for eligible schools and libraries to get affordable telecommunications and Internet access.

The lack of resources in many school districts and low teacher pay because of underfunding sparked a teachers protest movement in 2018, starting in West Virginia and spreading to a number of other states, most of them led by Republicans in states where teachers are not legally allowed to strike but did anyway.

The movement, known as the “Red for Ed” movement, was seeking not only more pay for teachers, some of whom have to work two or three jobs to pay their bills, but also for more resources for schools that can’t afford to pay nurses, counselors or buy enough paper for educators in every classroom. The coming budget cuts will only make worse the situation that sparked and fueled the strikes.

This is the letter sent to Congress by the Council of the Great City Schools:

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