As the nation’s public schools grapple with trying to reopen their doors in the fall, they face substantial barriers to even being able to provide the same level of education and services they have in recent years, let alone meet the needs created or greatly exacerbated by COVID-19. As is far too often the case, children living in poverty and children of color are likely to be left behind.
On Wednesday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing in which education leaders from across the country spoke about the significant challenges to reopening K-12 schools, which include everything from being able to meet necessary new health and safety requirements (think: masks for all students, extra custodial staff for rigorous cleaning, etc.) to providing distance learning technology that too many students still don’t have (especially as some schools look at a hybrid in-person and online model for back-to-school) to meeting the needs of students who have historically lacked the resources they need to succeed due to institutionalized racism and huge funding disparities.
One key takeaway from the hearing is that the nearly $31 billion in emergency aid provided by the CARES Act—even if accompanied by the additional funding that the House passed in the HEROES Act, which the Senate refuses to touch—does not even come close to meeting the need. An analysis released by the American Federation of Teachers estimates that public schools need at least $116.5 billion in order to safely reopen, and former Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. called for $500 billion for state and local governments and at least $175 billion for K-12 education. King also said that districts fear cuts to already-lean budgets of up to 20%, without urgent federal help. As Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) pointed out, funding in the CARES Act meant to stabilize our whole public education system was nearly on par with the funding allocated to the airline industry in the same bill. “The airline industry is important, but it’s not more important than all of the schools in the nation.”
Without a large and urgent Congressional investment in public education, our students are facing a “perfect storm” of problems caused by COVID-19: schools with scant budgets will be forced to make massive cuts, which will likely come from the parts of school budgets meant to provide critical resources to marginalized students, exactly at the moment when students are going to need more support than ever. We’re expecting to see significant learning loss, children newly experiencing poverty and even homelessness, and children experiencing types of trauma that we cannot even fully comprehend yet, all as a result of COVID-19. Students facing those kind of barriers need more support in schools in order to be able to thrive, and the fact is that even before COVID-19, children living in poverty and children of color were already more likely to attend schools that were poorly funded than students living in lower-poverty school districts. A 20% cut to the budget of a school district that already couldn’t supply materials for its students, didn’t have key support staff like counselors and social workers, and had far too many students for its number of qualified teachers could be catastrophic.
Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) put a fine point on the hearing, drawing connections to the recent death of George Floyd in her state and making clear that his death “reveals a systemic racism and inequity throughout our society,” which certainly includes our schools. In Minnesota, she said, there is a 30-point achievement gap between Black and White students. She then voiced a concern that the Children’s Defense Fund absolutely shares:
“This is my great worry. In a moment when we should be investing, we’re going to be seeing cuts because Congress apparently feels no urgency in addressing this issue as schools are trying to get ready for what is arguably the most important beginning of a school year that will happen in the lifetimes of these children.”
The Senate has an obligation to take swift action following this hearing, and America’s children will be watching.