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Janresseger: Will Congress Provide Fiscal Relief to Public Schools at an Austerity, Subsistence, or Investment Level?

In a NY Times column last week, David Brooks responded to the tragic police killing of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man, and the massive protests responding to the evident racism and inequality that underpin our society: “This moment is about police brutality, but it’s not only about police brutality. The word I keep hearing is ‘exhausted.’ People are exhausted by and fed up with the enduring wealth disparities between white and black, with the health disparities that leave black people more vulnerable to Covid-19, with the centuries-long disparities in violence and the threat of violence, with daily indignities on African-Americans and stains that linger on our nation decade after decade. The killing of George Floyd happened in a context—and that context is racial disparity. Racial disparity doesn’t make for gripping YouTube videos. It doesn’t spark mass protests because it’s not an event; it’s just the daily condition of our lives. It’s just a condition that people in affluent Manhattan live in one universe and people a few miles away in the Bronx live in a different universe. It’s just a condition that many black families send their kids to struggling inner-city schools while white families move to the suburbs and put on black T-shirts every few years to protest racial injustice.”

Brooks correctly identifies the problem: Structural inequality, segregation, and racism permeate our society.  But when it comes to a solution, Brooks looks to individuals, grants to neighborhood groups, and social entrepreneurship. Despite that injustice always involves systemic problems and that justice requires eliminating disparities in the system itself, Brooks suggests national service programs for young people, an endowment for civic architecture, Moving to Opportunity Grants, and even the Betsy DeVos solution, education savings account school vouchers for private education services (with the money coming out of public school budgets) to give parents a choice.

Last week, instead, advocating for federal relief funds for the Covid-19 recession, the National Education Policy Center, the Schott Foundation for Public Education and the Righteous Rage Institute released a plea to Congress not only for enough federal relief dollars to get our public schools running next fall, but also for enough to at least begin addressing historically unequal school funding between rural and urban schools that serve poor children and black and brown children, and the suburban schools that serve primarily privileged white children. The policy brief, released last Thursday, demands that Congress begin confronting structural inequality in the public schools that serve 50 million American children and adolescents, structural inequality epitomized by the alarming unwillingness of states to raise enough through taxes to make up for the uneven local taxing capacities across the nation’s school districts. Even though the state constitutions require formulas to direct more state funds to the school districts which cannot raise enough education dollars locally, those constitutional clauses have been ignored for too long.  Now that state education budgets are collapsing due to job losses, it is likely that those disparities between public services for rich and poor districts will only worsen.

The policy brief, written by Frank Adamson of California State University at Sacramento, Allison Brown of the Righteous Rage Institute for Social Justice, and Kevin Welner of the University of Colorado, demands that Congress consider this question: “If policymakers are willing and able to put trillions toward supporting wealthy investors and bolstering financial markets, how can they deny a fraction of that to our children to save their futures?”

The policy brief begins with a reminder to a Congress which has delayed further fiscal relief to states whose budgets have already begun collapsing: “Let’s be clear: these budget cuts are a political choice by the federal government, which can remedy the situation.”  While, before Memorial Day, the House passed the HEROES Act (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act), a bill including stimulus dollars to relieve pressure on state budgets, the Senate has delayed consideration of this bill.

Adamson, Brown, and Welner outline three options for Congress: “austerity, subsistence, or investment. Austerity—states suffer budget shortfalls unaided by the federal government, leading to massive teacher layoffs and other resource deprivation. Subsistence—the federal government backfills state budgets to maintain the status quo. Investment—the federal government uses this crisis as an opportunity to drive national renewal for our public education system. These options present a core policy choice. Instead of an estimated trillion dollars in overall state budget cuts, the federal government can deploy the same Keynesian approach that got us out of the Great Depression: short-term deficit spending as a public investment to address our present crisis and to increase our potential for generations to come.” (emphasis in the original)

Noting that the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP)—the federal stimulus after the 2008 Great Recession—was too limited, the new policy brief addresses a primary concern about current efforts so far to remedy the financial collapse during the current COVID-19 recession—its failure to protect services for children: “The current choices represent a stark contrast. While the federal government has thus far balked at substantially supporting states and local governments, and while it has provided very limited aid to the average person struggling to pay bills in a decimated economy, private investors making risky bets have received ample support. Through the Federal Reserve Bank, the federal government has assured investors that they can continue making those risky bets—or what should be risky bets in a true market system—with very little actual risk… This is an interesting and compelling framing, and it raises the question of whether there is a dollar limit on the future of the nation’s children.”

Adamson, Brown and Welner continue: “In truth, the federal government is uniquely positioned to make large investments in times of crisis to save industries. Such stimulus spending is worth the short-term expenditure because of the long-term payoff of economic recovery… But the federal government is also uniquely positioned to save the public sector…. Stimulus spending in public education has three, interrelated benefits: (a) preserving a foremost public good that is the linchpin for societal well-being; (b) assisting in the economic recovery by providing current jobs and future tax revenues; and (c) preparing high-skilled, high-wage earners who will contribute to the future economy.”

How much federal support do states need to at least maintain the public schools as we knew them before March of 2020? “Public education experts across the country are calling for $175 to $200 billion in federal stimulus funding for PreK-12 education, to cover estimated shortfalls to state and local funding for schools over the next two years. This amount would be the bare minimum needed to fill state and local gaps imposed by the crisis on school budgets; it would simply maintain the current resources in our education system… School closures (this spring) have intensified academic inequities while also exacerbating vast inequalities in access to basic needs.”

The authors enumerate all the academic programs, social services, and child care services schools provide for children, and point out the implications for 50 million children when school resources collapse: “When these resources disappear from schools, they can disappear from children’s lives. This is in part because we ask our public schools to compensate or substitute for missing or inadequate welfare systems… In fact, a core American belief is that our schools play the role of the ‘great equalizer.’  We ask and expect schools to provide the nation’s children with an education that will somehow be of such high quality that it will overcome all the inequalities of larger society. As irrational as that sounds, politicians have made the promise even more absurd by consistently underfunding those same schools. Public education systems have consistently borne the brunt of budget cuts—even in times of economic growth… The impact of education cuts and loss of teaching jobs has never affected all children equally. African American, Native American, Latinx, and low-income children are the hardest hit by austerity… The Great Recession deprived all districts of resources, but it hit the poorest hardest. Affluent school districts lost about $500 per student in state funding, on average, compared to high-poverty districts that lost over $1,500 per student.”

The National Education Policy Center, the Schott Foundation, and The Righteous Rage Institute demand that Congress do more than preserving long-running austerity in the poorest districts or merely just passing enough stimulus dollars to replace state and local dollars being lost due to the recession:

“Our policy makers are on the edge of a precipice. If they step into the budget-cut austerity abyss at this time of great crisis, they will be choosing to harm the nation’s children, and in doing so, to devalue the country’s most important asset. Recovery would become a long and arduous process… As one alternative, they can choose the stopgap, subsistence option of backfilling state and local budgets, which we contend is necessary but not sufficient… The third choice available to policymakers is stimulus investment devoted to our schools and children, especially children of color, in their time of great need, which would provide the extra benefit of saving jobs and creating new jobs to help in combating national unemployment… Refusing the needed funding for public education systems means impoverishing our youth, our communities, our public life—our democracy…  If policymakers are willing and able to put $4.5 trillion of Fed lending into bolstering financial markets through treasury funding, how can they deny a fraction of that to our children to save their futures?”

The new policy brief from NEPC, the Schott Foundation, and the Righteous Rage Institute demands that Congress address the unacceptable racial and economic disparities that underpin our nation’s public schools because of long-running inadequate and inequitable investment — a condition that the Covid-19-driven recession has only exacerbated.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...