Why Congress should take action now for schools to open in the fall

Why Congress should take action now for schools to open in the fall
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Health experts are increasingly calling for schools to reopen this fall. The American Academy of Pediatrics describes how districts can mitigate the risks of coronavirus transmission and also highlights the substantial risks of keeping children home. Not opening schools across the nation means more than lost opportunities to learn. If schools stay closed, staff cannot identify kids suffering abuse or struggling with mental health and ensure access to food. Beyond the various benefits for students, many parents also depend on schools to look after their children while they work.

Some students will need to continue learning at home because they or a family member has elevated risks from the coronavirus, and schools will need to be prepared to offer remote instruction for students if infections surge. However, some districts that want to reopen their schools may not be able to do so without the substantial additional federal assistance that needs to come soon, be flexible, and reach the most vulnerable.

The Council of Chief State School Officers estimates that mounting both virtual and onsite instruction that complies with public health guidelines will cost schools an extra $158 billion to $256 billion next school year, or about $3,000 to $5,000 per pupil. States, which provide almost half the district budgets, have falling revenues and spending increases for other critical areas. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates state budget shortfalls of 25 percent for next year. Neither states nor districts can borrow to close these gaps, but the federal government can.

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The Cares Act gave $16 billion for education, including higher education, which is wholly insufficient. The House passed $58 billion for schools in the Heroes Act, but the Senate has not acted on the bill. Even this would fall short of covering the gap between increased costs and lost revenues. How should Congress distribute the next round of aid for schools?

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos argued that the “coronavirus does not discriminate” and that “everything and everyone is affected.” The latter is true. The former, sadly, is not, as both the coronavirus and the recession are significantly impacting poor communities. All districts need aid, but those serving more poor students need more. Congress allocated most Cares Act funds for schools with this in mind, directing them under Title One, which is the federal program for compensatory education.

Districts will need flexibility in how they spend federal assistance to meet the needs of students, and the association of aid with Title One may well undermine this goal. Congress should also avoid limiting the flexibility by listing specific permissible uses of aid. While it is true that districts have new costs for protective gear, hand sanitizer, hotspots, devices, and the like, they need far more help with those basic costs like paying teachers now that state tax revenues have shrunk along with the economy.

The most attractive feature of Title One is that it sends more assistance to poorer states and districts, however, there are other ways to achieve this goal with more of the flexibility districts need. So in the next coronavirus relief package, Congress should be sure to use a formula that distributes funds based on a combination of child poverty and child population. Our research shows that sending 70 percent of funds based on child poverty and 30 percent based on child population will send a similar amount of additional federal aid per poor child to each state as Title One would do so. Allocations would be simple to calculate with available data.

The failure of Congress to help schools will have real consequences for students. Budget cuts during the Great Recession were bad for student achievement, especially for low income students. Districts met budgets by raising class sizes, cutting programs, or reducing instructional days. But in the current crisis, lower spending means tougher choices. Fairfax County Public Schools gave parents an option of either a fully distanced program or two days at school every week. Some districts might not be able to offer onsite instruction at all without federal assistance.

The new fiscal year started this month for states, but Congress can send aid quickly. To avoid the dangers of social isolation for the well being of children, schools need another federal relief package that is big enough, flexible enough, and soon enough to allow them to open this fall.

Nora Gordon is a professor at the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy. Sarah Reber is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor with the University of California Luskin School of Public Affairs.