Insufficient education funding and low teacher pay sparked the 2018 Red for Ed movement, in which teachers, first in Republican-led states, went out on strike to demand more resources for their schools and higher salaries. Some states settled the strikes with promises to pay teachers more money, but now, some of those raises are in jeopardy.
With the economy reeling from the closure of most public life in America due to the coronavirus pandemic, Congress just passed a $2 trillion assistance package that includes about $13.5 billion for public schools.
But it was far from the minimum of $75 billion that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s two major teachers unions, had asked for in a recent letter to Congress. And educators say schools will need far more help from Congress in coming months.
This post looks at the lessons that emerged from the efforts to recover from the recession more than a decade ago and how they could be applied today. It was written by Derek Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and author of the 2016 book “Ending Zero Tolerance: The Crisis of Absolute School Discipline.” He also writes the Education Law Prof Blog.
By Derek W. Black
During the Great Recession of the late 2000s, Congress hoped that most of a $54 billion set-aside in stimulus funds would be enough to save public school budgets, which had been savaged by state and local governments. It wasn’t enough.
States imposed education cuts so steep that many school budgets still have not fully rebounded — and Congress’s 2020 stimulus bill aimed at trying to save the economy from a new calamity fails to address the possibility of a sequel. Meanwhile, even before the economic effects of the current crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic are being fully felt, states are already looking to cut education funding.
Now is the time to learn from mistakes of the past, not repeat them.
Public schools have long consumed the lion’s share of states’ revenues, and for good reason. Public education, as the Supreme Court wrote, is “the most important function of state and local governments.” It serves as the “foundation of good citizenship” and “democratic society.”
Yet, when the economy faltered in 2008, states made little, if any, attempt to shield schools. Several states even targeted education for cuts. Wisconsin waged a “war” on teacher benefits. North Carolina and Florida cut education spending from about $10,000 per pupil to $7,000 in just three years. States across the country incentivized students to leave public schools for cheaper alternatives: charter schools and voucher programs.
States then refused to replenish education funding even after the economy rebounded. The latest available data from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities shows that as late as the 2016-17 school year, education funding remained below pre-recession levels in real dollar terms in just under half the states — sometimes up to 30 percent lower.
Students paid the price. The overwhelming social science consensus demonstrates that money matters to student achievement and current funding levels are woefully inadequate. A 2008 study revealed that the average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less than they need per student.
If states cut public education with the same reckless abandon this time as last, the harm will be untold. A teaching profession that has spent the last two years protesting shamefully low salaries may simple break. The number quitting the profession altogether will further skyrocket — and it’s not likely there will be anyone to take their place.
The number of college students pursuing teaching degrees was already down 30 to 50 percent in a lot of states before the sudden economic trouble. Class sizes will continue on their decade-long expansion. And the prekindergarten opportunities, mental health counselors, and other supports that disadvantaged students so desperately need — but which states wouldn’t fund during good times — might as well be on permanent hold.
The first signs of this possibility are here. In recent weeks, three states — Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee — have cut teacher salary increases for this coming year — increases intended at this late date to begin repairing the damage from the last recession. Education Week reports that teachers may lose all of an anticipated pay hike in Kentucky, and legislatures in at least five other states have not acted on salary hikes for educators.
And these quick pivots on education are just the tip of the iceberg. New York City schools, for instance, fear they may not receive their full aid from the state this year due to school closures. Early estimates project that the coronavirus crisis will cost New York from $9 billion to $15 billion in tax revenues.
Last time, legislators convinced themselves that schools could absorb these losses without harming kids. They also latched onto the notion that charter schools could do a better job than public schools for less money, and private schools would take needy kids at a discount.
Studies later confirmed their naivete. Recession-era cuts depressed student achievement. Fraud, profit-seeking and segregation were all too common in the charter sector. And kids in charter schools and voucher programs frequently fell behind their peers.
This time, online learning will offer a shiny panacea — an excuse to avoid making other needed investments in schools. No doubt, states should invest in infrastructure and training to provide seamless online learning when the next crisis comes. It might also allow for creative experiments. But that investment should be a supplement to current education budgets, not a cost to absorb.
No matter what, virtual learning cannot replace what happens in schoolhouses. Studies show that excessive screen time negatively impacts students in multiple ways, and many disability and support services simply cannot be delivered over the Internet.
Even if we somehow solved those problems, we can’t replace the organic learning that happens between students. Plus, school teaches far more than just the three Rs. Group activities, music, drama, sports, play time and the banter at the lunchroom table are all important parts of growing up and becoming well-adjusted citizens.
If the current crisis is teaching us anything, it is just how hard and important schools’ jobs are. Kids cannot stare at a screen or book for seven hours a day, nor should they. Parents, employers and hopefully lawmakers are painfully realizing just how central school services are to everyone’s lives and the basic operation of the economy.
I do not know how many additional losses our schools can take on top of the last ones or how much e-learning is appropriate, but I do know one thing. A century and a half ago, citizens began approving state constitutions that made public education their states’ first priority. They did it for a very good reason. They knew times like these would come. They knew the foundation of society had to be solid.
Education should be the last place, not the first, that states look to make budget cuts in the troubled economic times ahead.
(Clarification: This version makes clearer the number of states that were at pre-recession levels in 2016-17)