Schools across the country are bracing for steep budget cuts as the coronavirus pandemic continues (AP Photo/Jeff Amy).
Schools across the country are bracing for steep budget cuts as the coronavirus pandemic continues (AP Photo/Jeff Amy).

As schools across the United States struggle to reopen, they are facing huge budget shortfalls caused by the coronavirus pandemic. And the impact isn’t going to be felt evenly.

Safety and health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic aren’t the only battle that educators are fighting this fall. The coronavirus pandemic is expected to bleed roughly $200 billion from state budgets, according to the Urban Institute’s State and Local Finance Initiative. Those massive shortfalls are likely to prove devastating to local school funding. And students with the least access to resources may suffer a wider achievement gap because of it. 

For context, in 2010 Congress earmarked nearly $115 billion in state stimulus money to shore up education funding. This year, the CARES Act sent $13.2 billion to states for education in March. Since then, House Democrats proposed $175 billion for K-12 classrooms at the end of June; GOP leaders in the Senate responded with a proposal for $70 billion. As of today, the Republican-led Senate remains deadlocked on a new round of funding

“There’s a potential squeeze that’s happening here that is going to destroy equity if we’re not very careful,” Rebecca Sibilia, head of the school funding group EdBuild, told Chalkbeat. “That is increased need in areas that are very, very vulnerable to state funding cuts.” 

Sibilia’s concerns aren’t the only ones that have been raised recently. In July, finance experts at the Education Writers Association’s national seminar explained how schools nationwide would be affected by this year’s funding cuts. Basing their analysis on the 2008 recession, they warned that programs that help low-income children—such as summer school, after-school tutoring, supplemental reading, and transportation—would be endangered. Academic performance is also expected to suffer.

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“The Great Recession impacted all student learning, but it particularly impacted low-income and minority student learning,” said Michael Griffith, an analyst at the Education Commission of the States.

The reasons are directly related to economic inequality. Much of the funding for local schools comes from property taxes, leaving lower-income schools with less money from that source and more dependent on funding from the state. But states’ funds come from taxes, and as unemployment skyrockets and people tighten their belts, less revenue is being generated in sales and other taxes. California, New York and Georgia—where state funding typically makes up 40-49% of public-school revenue—have already started trimming back.

Deeper budget cuts will do students at impoverished schools exponentially more harm, even when states make what look like equal cuts across all districts. According to the Census Bureau, US schools spend a little over $12,000 annually per student. If a state cuts 10% of its funding to every district, low-income school districts are impacted more. If a low-income school district gets $10,000 per student from the state and a more affluent district gets only $1,000, the first district will feel the pain far more. 

“When everybody gets the same treatment, our most vulnerable students’ needs don’t get met,” Christina Spears—vice president of the Wake County chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators—told COURIER. “We need to tackle this with an equity—not equality—focus.” 

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On the federal level, some lawmakers have floated school-funding options that target precisely the most vulnerable students. GOP Rep. Tom Tiffany (Wis.) introduced a bill earlier this year that would withhold federal funding for schools that did not mandate in-person clases. While his proposal went nowhere, it did mirror the GOP’s overall push to reopen schools despite budget and safety concerns. 

Democrat Tricia Zunker, who is running to unseat Tiffany this November, noted that those losing those federal funds would specifically target disabled and low-income students in Wisconsin. “His first move in Congress is to target our most vulnerable students,” Zunker told COURIER sister site, UpNorthNews. “It’s ridiculous.”

This is especially true for schools during the coronavirus pandemic, when enrollment is likely to drop and, with it, state tax funds. In August, North Carolina’s Board of Education asked for legislation to protect school funding, regardless of whether enrollment numbers go down. Traditionally, funding is cut if enrollment falls short during the first two months of the school year. 

However, even if enrollment numbers remain steady, this pandemic school year has already increased the financial needs of school districts. Remote learning has additional costs associated with it, including digital devices for students. Districts must also find ways to help students who fell behind in the spring and are in need of remedial help. 

For schools bringing students back into their classrooms, more medical support is required to ensure everyone’s health, and maintenance staff must continually sanitize classrooms, buses, and cafeterias in order to diminish potential sites of coronavirus transmission.

“Among the many things that COVID-19 has revealed is the tenuous financial position that many of our districts face,” North Carolina state board chairman Eric Davis told the Raleigh News & Observer. “It’s important in these uncertain times that we ensure adequate funding for our public schools.”