Former Chicago mayor and presidential press secretary Rahm Emanuel infamously said: “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, 12 national public education groups are employing that strategy by asking Congress for $200+ billion additional aid in what is likely to be the next federal stimulus package. In a letter sent to congressional leaders, these groups, including the American Federation of Teachers, superintendents and principals organizations, and the National PTA, among others, are pleading for this staggering amount. This request is in addition to the $13.5 billion dedicated to K-12 education in the original stimulus package passed last month, along with $3 billion that is available to governors to use at their discretion to prop up public education.
The appeal comes without justification for the amount sought and without specifying exactly what schools would do with the money. Instead, in typical government spending fashion, they look back at how much federal money went to public schools during the last recession in 2009 – approximately $100 billion – and use that as a baseline. Then they make the statement “(g)iven the likelihood that things continue to get worse before they turn around” as a justification for literally doubling-down this time.
How is that volume of money to be used? For the bulk, the group is short on specifics.
-> $175 billion – emergency funding directly to states to support local school districts. They don’t say why that particular amount is needed or how it would be spent but are precise on how quickly states must get the money to school districts – within 15 days of receipt.
-> $25 billion – support of federal categorical programs. They are asking $13 billion for special education and $12 billion to Title 1 schools. Those just happen to be the amounts the feds currently spend annually on those programs.
-> $2 billion – technology for remote learning. This is one expenditure that might be justifiable, if done correctly. An expansion of broadband internet availability is essential, especially in states like Kansas that have many remote rural schools and low-income urban students. However, this is a project that could be funded through the initial stimulus allotment to K-12 education.
-> ? billion – infrastructure funding to “modernize our nation’s school” facilities. This recommendation does not come with a dollar amount, but this group has doubtless been paying attention to President Trump’s call for a multi-trillion-dollar nationwide infrastructure program. If such a program becomes reality, there’s no question that public education will be at the front of the line to take as much as possible.
In this extraordinary time of trillion-dollar spending measures, $200 billion sounds like chump change. However, to put that figure in perspective, it calculates to about $4,000 per pupil across a nation of about 50 million public school students. In Kansas, that is quadruple what the state currently receives in federal assistance. Keep in mind the state already spends more than $14,000 per pupil annually.
What is conspicuously missing from this letter is how this money will impact student outcomes. There is barely a word about quality of education to the students. It is almost entirely focused on supporting the institutions of public education with little attention on the students.
There is no question that there will be a financial impact on state and local governments as a result of COVID-19, both in terms of supply and demand. The problem is that no one knows exactly what that will be. Will the economy recover quickly and strongly, back to where it was before the virus? Will the recovery be slower and more cautious if it takes longer than expected to get back to “normal”? At this time, it is anybody’s guess. That makes it irresponsible for these public education groups to try to take financial advantage of such an unknown. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – and who has become the face of the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response team – has cautiously predicted (as of this writing) schools should be able to reopen in the fall. If that comes to pass, much of whatever extra costs happen to be associated with distance learning from traditional public schools will disappear.
Let’s not forget that public education is a near recession-proof industry in that contracts are honored to pay administrators and teachers and expenditures for public education are a constitutional priority. I was a teacher during the 2009 recession and while millions were out of work, very few teachers and administrators lost their jobs. It is heartless at this uniquely difficult time we are going through to advocate building, repairing and renovating schools when millions of families are struggling just to survive.