Congress under pressure to provide billions for school openings
Congress is under growing pressure to provide billions of dollars to help schools reopen as part of the next coronavirus aid package while debate rages nationwide over whether it’s safe to send students and teachers back to classrooms.
Democrats and Republicans are increasingly in agreement that education funding will be a key part of the negotiations this month for a trillion-plus aid package. But divisions are emerging over how the funds should be allocated directly to K-12 public schools or through special vouchers for parents.
Without the funding, education groups warn that schools won’t have adequate protective gear, cleaning and ventilation systems needed to keep students, teachers and staff safe in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.
“It’s not unlike a hurricane. When a hurricane hits, every American has a right to expect FEMA to come in and help,” said Kim Anderson, the National Education Association’s executive director. “This is a similar emergency.”
“There are all kinds of creative ways that we can think about reopening, but we need additional resources to do that safely,” Anderson said.
The National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and American Academy of Pediatrics jointly called on Congress and the Trump administration on Friday to “provide the federal resources needed to ensure that inadequate funding does not stand in the way of safely educating and caring for children in our schools.”
School districts were already struggling to figure out how to adhere to the CDC guidelines, which became another flashpoint after President Trump attacked them as “very tough and expensive.”
The CDC guidelines suggest a variety of ways to overhaul school days to limit the risk of coronavirus spread, including keeping students’ desks at least six feet apart, creating distance on school buses, increasing air circulation, wearing masks and regularly disinfecting surfaces. But implementing those measures to purchase equipment and reduce the number of students at a time in a room or on a bus will be costly for school districts that had tight budgets even before the pandemic hit.
Democrats have offered multiple proposals to provide billions in funding to help public schools adapt to new teaching methods during the pandemic. They’ve also pushed for months for any coronavirus aid package to include nearly $1 trillion in funding for state and local governments to help fill budget holes caused by the pandemic and avoid layoffs of workers like public school teachers.
House Democrats passed a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill back in May that included $90 billion to help schools cover the costs of cleaning, transportation, buying technology and making up instructional time.
Senate Democrats more recently unveiled legislation that would provide $175 billion for K-12 schools to purchase protective equipment, keep students spaced apart in classrooms and improve virtual learning. School districts would have to use at least 20 percent of the funds to address students’ learning losses resulting from the school closures when the pandemic first hit the U.S.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Department of Education, suggested that the amount allocated for schools in the negotiations could end up being even higher.
“If you take a look at the CDC guidelines on all these areas, the kinds of supplies that are necessary, the kind of distancing and all of that, it may very well be that $175 billion is not adequate and that it requires additional funding,” DeLauro told The Hill.
Any school assistance would be in addition to billions at stake in expected fights in the coronavirus aid negotiations over expiring enhanced unemployment benefits, funding for state and local governments and another round of stimulus payments to individuals.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) didn’t offer a specific dollar amount for education aid, but said that helping schools adhere to the CDC guidelines with increased cleaning, protective equipment and online learning will be a priority in the coronavirus aid package.
“It will be challenging for the schools,” McConnell said. “You’re going to want the kids to wear masks, you’re going to want to do social distancing, you’ve got transportation issues, all of which will have a cost issue.”
Republicans have yet to back Trump’s threats to cut funding for schools that don’t comply with his demands to fully reopen for in-person classes to make it easier for parents to return to work in the hopes that it will boost the economy ahead of the November elections. Instead, they’re floating the possibility of giving parents “flexibility” and shielding schools from liability.
“The question should not be if we open schools in America but how. We want to do it safely, we want to protect students, we want to protect the schools from liability. We want to give flexibility to the parents in the use of their money,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said. “If we have found ways for restaurants, casinos, and others to open, we must find ways for our daycare and our schools to open safely.”
Trump’s ability to cut school funding is limited since only about 10 percent of funding for public elementary and secondary schools comes from the federal government, while state and local governments provide the rest. After initially echoing Trump’s threats earlier in the week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a “school choice” proponent of private and religious education, indicated that the administration was looking into an unspecified form of vouchers.
“We’re not suggesting pulling funding from education, but instead allowing families take that money and figure out where their kids can get educated if their schools are going to refuse to open,” DeVos said on Fox News.
But including any sort of vouchers in an aid package will be a tough sell for Democrats in Congress, who view such a proposal as an effort to undermine public schools.
“Her whole raison d’être is to privatize public schools,” DeLauro said of DeVos. “This is subterfuge. And so what we need to do is to thwart any of her efforts to try to privatize our public school system.”
Despite the Trump administration’s push for schools to reopen for in-person classroom instruction five days a week, many school districts across the country are still opting for only having students on campus part-time or maintaining entirely virtual learning. That’s especially the case for school districts where coronavirus cases are spiking, like in Arizona.
Educators say that the angst over how to safely reopen schools ultimately comes down to the federal government’s inability to keep the coronavirus under control at a national level.
“We’ve got this all backwards in terms of the sequence,” Anderson said. “The lack of federal action here says to students and parents and families, you’re on your own. And that’s just unacceptable.”