After the COVID-19 money is spent, schools will still be underfunded

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The pandemic’s impact on public education, especially in schools serving communities segregated by poverty and race, should come as no surprise. Even before COVID-19 upended state budgets, public school funding was deeply inequitable and inadequate. Many states had yet to fill budget holes after the Great Recession, resulting in a revenue loss to schools of nearly $600 billion combined across the U.S. from 2008 to 2018.

In the short term, Congress has stepped into the breach with roughly $125 billion in federal emergency relief for K-12 schools across the country. The money must be used to help reopen schools safely, return to in-person instruction, and get students back on track academically as quickly as possible. While the amount is significant, the money is a one-time allocation and must be spent over the next two years. Once spent, it’s gone.

So, federal COVID-19 relief will act as a much-needed Band-Aid for underfunded schools that have been starved for years, maybe decades, of the resources needed to educate their students, especially marginalized students and students of color. But underneath the infusion of emergency federal funds, the deep and persistent disinvestment in public education remains in far too many states. 

While educators respond to the pandemic, it is essential that the tough, hard work of school funding reform in state capitols across the country not only continue but also be strengthened.

We need to sound the alarm when states attempt to use federal funds intended for the public health crisis as an excuse to cut support for their public schools even more. State legislatures must be stopped from diverting even more tax dollars to private school vouchers and other privatization schemes. And state lawmakers must look beyond the next one or two budget cycles and enact long-term, structural reform of broken, outmoded school finance systems that fail to meet the needs of students, families and communities.   

What does it take to get this done? This month, the Education Law Center published an in-depth study of four states — Washington, Kansas, Massachusetts and New Jersey — where hard-fought campaigns helped deliver significant benefits for students and schools.

What did we learn? In short, successful campaigns deliver a one-two punch of political pressure backed by legal action. They also focus on winning over hearts and minds through coordinated, community- and educator-centered messaging. As advocates for public education work to modernize funding methods and increase investment in our schools, they should heed the following four lessons.

First, winning a political majority is the goal. Securing increased funding for schools requires gaining the support of governors and legislators, which may require electing pro-public school candidates. While there’s no “right” way, the successful campaigns we studied built broad-based coalitions that included parents, students, teachers and advocates working together to galvanize public opinion and break down resistance inside the statehouse. In Massachusetts, a statewide grassroots campaign mobilized a wave of public support for schools. In New Jersey, advocates, practitioners and lawyers convinced all three branches of state government of the importance of preschool for low-income children, paving the way for the creation of the Abbott preschool program, now a national model for high-quality early education. 

Second, litigation can apply much-needed pressure on lawmakers to act. While the state legislature ultimately controls the purse strings, the courts matter — a lot. Washington, Kansas and New Jersey courts applied crucial and timely pressure on politicians to act, especially when the primary beneficiaries of that action were low-income, Black, Latino, homeless and other vulnerable children who were not their direct constituents.

Third, an aggressive communications strategy is essential for building persuasive political campaigns. In each state we studied, advocates developed a unified message on the need for and benefits of school funding reform and used the media and advocacy groups to get the message out.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, campaigns require long-term, sustained investment to succeed. School funding reform is not a “one-and-done” enterprise. Disparities in school funding were present long before the current crisis and won’t be undone overnight or with a single stroke of the pen.

It appears that many states will avoid the direst predictions about revenue shortfalls and budget cuts as a result of the pandemic. Even so, the political and economic pressure to reduce support for public schools likely will escalate given the temporary infusion of COVID-19 emergency relief. Now more than ever, the state-by-state movement of public school advocates, teachers and citizens must continue and grow. At stake is nothing less than the right of every child to an education that will give them the opportunity to succeed in school and in life.

David Sciarra is the executive director of Education Law Center, a national nonprofit that promotes educational equity through coalition building, litigation support, policy development, communications, and action-focused research.

Tags Biden coronavirus relief plan Education public schools underfunding education

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