COVID-19 Presents Opportunity to Reinvest in Public Education

About the Author: Daniel Horowitz is a first year law student at American University- Washington College of Law. Daniel graduated from Tulane University and hopes to  pursue a career in administrative law after graduating law school. 

 

The coronavirus pandemic has presented a new and unique set of challenges in education for students, teachers, administrators, and families. It has also revealed and exacerbated a great deal of longstanding issues of educational equity and outcomes. As Congress begins to think through solutions for students and teachers to get through the pandemic, legislators also need to consider this an opportunity to rethink long-term solutions to improve our public education system.

Over time, public school revenue sources in the United States—though it varies from state to state—has generally increased.[1] With the increase in education spending, we have seen student performance fluctuate. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” fourth- and eighth-grade students had long-term average score gains in math and reading assessments as of 2019, though their scores decreased since 2017.[2] Twelfth graders had no significant long-term or short-term average score changes in math scores but had significant average score decreases over time in reading.[3] Beyond the average score trends, NAEP also demonstrated how Black and Hispanic students consistently scored lower in math and reading than white students over time.[4]

When schools shut down in March because of the pandemic, no one had any idea how long we would have to social distance; at first, many thought schools would only have to worry about remote learning for the remainder of the previous school year. Schools and school districts had to quickly implement measures to make sure students had the essentials for remote learning. Such a task was easier said than done; and when the pandemic subsides, many students will likely still need support from schools and districts.

Schools and districts noticed how difficult it would be for low-income households and rural areas to log on for classes without broadband access and other critical technology.[5] However, those same students have been victims of the digital divide for years, making it more difficult for them to learn.[6]

For students who are starting to return to in-person learning, schools have to ensure that students and faculty have protective equipment, that classrooms are well-ventilated, and that they can monitor everyone’s symptoms and contract trace to the best of their abilities.[7] Even before the pandemic, teachers and administrators struggled to keep classrooms properly supplied, and many schools have had difficulties maintaining and updating their infrastructures to provide a safe environment for students.[8]

Congress tried to address pandemic-related issues schools faced by passing the CARES Act earlier this year.[9] The legislation provided over $13 billion for primary and secondary schools to help administer remote learning practices. The HEROES Act, which the House of Representatives passed a few months later, proposed adding another $58 billion for K–12 education, which could have gone a long way to help schools adjust to pandemic learning.[10] However, the bill has yet to make it past the Senate.

As legislators continue to consider spending tens of billions to help schools during a pandemic, they should also think through how solutions they implement now can serve as a longer-term investment in education to help schools and students. This expansion could mean investing in broadband expansion, school infrastructure, or any other problems schools and students have long faced.

Critics of traditional public schools, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, are typically reluctant to increase federal spending for traditional public education, arguing that educational outcomes have not improved despite increased education spending from the federal government. These claims ignore that federal spending only accounts for a fraction of school funding since schools are funded mostly through local property taxes.[11] With such localized funding sources, schools in lower-income areas are bound to be underfunded compared to those in wealthier areas. Though state governments help lower-income schools reach a minimum required threshold of per pupil spending, that minimum threshold may still be much lower than per pupil spending level in schools in wealthier neighborhoods.[12] Without more robust federal involvement in education funding, achievement gaps between students of various socioeconomic statuses are likely to persist.

It should not have taken a pandemic for us to realize that many schools are underfunded and often lack what they need to make sure students succeed. The relief fund for elementary and secondary schools in the CARES Act was a good start in helping schools, but it really only got us through the beginning of the pandemic. The HEROES Act could have given—and still could give—schools more needed support to facilitate a relatively smooth education process for the remainder of this school year. But even after the pandemic subsides, the federal government will need to take more of a role in funding our education system. We can use these trying times as an opportunity to look toward the future—to spot issues that students and schools have always faced and determine what more that the federal government can do to invest in public education and help struggling students and schools.

 

[1] Nat’l Ctr. for Educ. Stat., U.S. Dept. of Educ., NCES 2020-144, The Condition of Educ. 2020 (2020).

[2] Nat’l Ctr. for Educ. Stat., Nat’l Average Scores, 2019 NAEP Mathematics Report Card, https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/mathematics/nation/groups/?grade=4; Nat’l Ctr. for Educ. Stat., Nat’l Average Scores, 2019 NAEP Reading Report Card, https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading/nation/scores/?grade=4.

[3] Id.

[4] Nat’l Ctr. for Educ. Stat., Nat’l Student Grp. Scores and Score Gaps, 2019 NAEP Mathematics Report Card, https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/mathematics/nation/groups/?grade=4; Nat’l Ctr. for Educ. Stat., Nat’l Student Grp. Scores and Score Gaps, 2019 NAEP Reading Report Card, https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading/nation/groups/?grade=4.

[5] Tony Romm, ‘It shouldn’t take a pandemic’: Coronavirus exposes Internet inequality among U.S. students as schools close their doors, Washington Post (March 16, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/03/16/schools-internet-inequality-coronavirus/.

[6] Michael Melia et al., 3 million US students don’t have home internet, Assoc. Press (June 10, 2019), https://apnews.com/article/7f263b8f7d3a43d6be014f860d5e4132.

[7] Ctr. for Disease Control and Prevention, Operating schools during COVID-19: CDC’s Considerations, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/schools.html.

[8] Bill Latham, School Infrastructure Is In Big Trouble. Building New Schools Isn’t the Answer, Educ. Week (October 15, 2018), https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/10/16/school-infrastructure-is-in-big-trouble-building.html.

[9] U.S. Dept. of Educ., Elementary & Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, Office of Elementary & Secondary Education, https://oese.ed.gov/offices/education-stabilization-fund/elementary-secondary-school-emergency-relief-fund/.

[10] House Comm. on Educ. & Lab., HEROES Act (H.R. 6800) Educ. & Cmty. Support Provisions, https://edlabor.house.gov/imo/media/doc/2020-05-12%20Heroes%20Act%20-%20Education%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf.

[11] The Urb. Inst., How do school funding formulas work? (Nov. 29, 2017), https://apps.urban.org/features/funding-formulas/.

[12] Id.

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