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Public School Funding Crisis, Meet Covid-19

The pandemic is running headlong into a school funding problem that has been building for decades.

Public education is in crisis. The crisis isn’t new, but combined with the threat of COVID-19, it’s becoming much worse. 

In the decade before the Great Recession in 2007, schools faced budget cuts across the board. As the economy made great gains and stabilized in the years that followed, those same schools didn’t any more funding put back into their hallways, their gyms, or their classrooms. 

At the same time, schools were defunded just as social welfare programs across the board were gutted and left out to dry. Add that to the massive, and growing, wealth gap in the United States, and underfunded schools have become a catch-all for poverty, homelessness, hunger, health, and more. Sixty percent of schools in the United States report their schools need repairs, and the way that schools are funded — through property taxes and income taxes — all but guarantees inequity in the system. Poor neighborhoods? Poor schools. Rich neighborhoods? Rich schools.

The inequities that are supposed to be solved by public education are instead exacerbated, says Dr. Elaine Weiss. She is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and co-author of Broader, Bolder, Better: How Schools and Communities Help Students Overcome the Disadvantages of Poverty, which outlines a fundamentally different way of viewing, funding, and conducting public education. All of these issues, she says, create a massive brick wall that has been built over the last two decades, one that’s about to collide with the COVID-19 pandemic. Fatherly spoke to Weiss about what went wrong with education funding, how overall social welfare programs mirror educational achievement, and her concerns about schools reopening, or not reopening, in this current moment. 

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Public school funding is in very bad shape. How did we get here?

There’s an original sin of how we fund education programs in the United States. We emphasize local and state funding to compensate for the local funding inequities we’ve baked in. We tack on a small amount of federal money to try to moderate, or compensate for, both of those inequities. That is the flip of a system that would promote equity.

An equitable system would start at a federal level. And then you could add on state or local money. This is a system that, from the start, takes the inequities that kids already have when they’ve entered the classroom and ensures that those inequities not only are not compensated for, but are exacerbated.

The inequalities in how we fund public school are also inequities that are inherently exacerbated during and after economic downturns when your two main sources of funding are local. You have property taxes going down, or in the case of the Great Recession, falling through the floor, for disadvantaged communities. If you look at what caused it, the impact it had, and who lost all their wealth, it was low income, black communities that now have no wealth whatsoever. And what does that mean about their property taxes? They don’t have any. 

So the exact communities that were already in bad shape are in much worse shape.

Yes. And then of course, during these huge recessions, states are in terrible shape. One of the first things they cut is education, because it’s such a big part of their budget. They just don’t see another way around it. All of this was particularly acute in the last recession, partly because it was very large, partly because of this property tax aspect to it, and partly because it had already come on the heels of federal cuts and restrictions to the main sources of education funding. 

Which cuts and restrictions are you referring to?

Well, we already had restrictions and limitations in what Title I [Editor’s Note: Title I is a provision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in 1965. It distributes funding to schools and school districts with a high percentage of families who are low-income. It is received by more than 50 percent of public schools.] was supposed to be doing, and how effectively it was targeting the most disadvantaged schools. Title I was never sufficient, but had become less so over the decades. So the Great Recession comes on top of all of this. To add more insult to injury, several states made the brilliant move of cutting income taxes.

Which was a major source of education funding.

Yes. So not only do they have these huge gaps in education funding, they lock them in. It’s impossible to make up for that. Because of the combination of how deep the Recession was, how long it took to recover, and the fact that for many states, public education was not a high priority, and we’re in trouble. A decade after the Recession, more than half of states have not even gotten back to the level of funding they were before the Great Recession. So pre-recession, we’re already lacking funding. A decade later, we’re in trouble, and then COVID hits us.

This all creates a perfect storm surrounding the public schools. Now, there was also a major teacher shortage, too. 

Yes. It’s been denied, bizarrely, in a lot of states. The thing was, “There’s no teacher shortage, there’s just a lack of teachers in high school. There’s just a lack of teachers for science, or, there’s just a lack of special-ed teachers, or there’s just a lack of language teachers.” That just sounds like a lack of teachers.

This huge teacher shortage crisis also comes up with a bunch of factors. One of them is this lack of pay for teachers. Teachers who are retiring are being replaced by younger people, and there’s pressure on testing, problems with pension plans, and lack of respect for the profession, and lack of satisfaction. Teachers say their support is crappy and their professional development is crappy. So that’s how states and schools are going into this. 

The other thing is what’s happening with respect to economic and racial segregation, right over these same decades. We’re seeing growth in segregation, both economic and racial, which is exacerbating challenges that schools are facing. Right now, schools actually need more resources. They have a huge increase in diversity of the student body, racial, socio economic, ethnic, linguistic. All of that means schools need many more resources, just at a time when they’re being cut dramatically. That adds a bunch of skills that teachers need to acquire, while we have fewer teachers, and they’re turning over at a rapid rate, which means the odds they can apply those skills well are limited.

You mentioned that a big problem is the original sin of how we fund public education. Have we always funded education in this way — by relying solely on local funding? 

The federal government really stepped in when we acted on poverty. We did have a 20 year period starting with President Lyndon B. Johnson and the 20 years after that, through the 60s and much of the 70s. School desegregation efforts, work on poverty, and enactment of social support all worked together to cut poverty and fight inequity as a whole.

We had this very broad expansion of the economy, too. The middle class was growing and poverty was shrinking for other reasons. Labor unions were strong. That’s the period where we really see schools doing their best. I mean, it’s a point where achievements go up, achievement gaps are shrinking, segregation is reduced and all of that, and really, ends around 1980.

You mentioned that, before the Great Recession, education budgets were already being hit hard, and then they were slashed during the recession. Why do you believe that, besides the fact that education is expensive, it’s not really prioritized in federal or state budgets? Are there attitudes or beliefs that shape that policy making? 

You see very similar patterns when it comes to funding public education and other public goods and services. The same states that are generous when it comes to public education also tend to fund public goods and services. There is what appears to be a pretty strong racial issue in there, sure. 

Across the South, there is a massive resistance to public support of every kind and public education. It’s very hard to ignore the reality that so many of the kids that need help are not white. I would suggest there’s a pretty strong underlying racial current there. And I think social support, in general, lacks the public support, often because there is an underlying belief that people don’t acknowledge that supporting people who make less money means supporting people who are black, and we don’t want to do that.

So, how could we fund schools that don’t rely on the state and local tax scheme?

Right now, in addition to education policy, I work on social insurance policy, so things like Social Security, unemployment insurance, workers comp. Social Security is a federal program. Everyone pays into it. It doesn’t matter where you live, right? You could live in Mississippi, which hates poor people and Black people, and does everything possible policy-wise to make it impossible for them to survive, and you still get the same Social Security. 

Right. 

The anchor needs to be a foundational level of federal funding. I don’t see a way around that if we want actual equitable education.

People talk a lot about how wealthy parents disinvest from the public school system and send their children to private schools. Would the effects of that be ameliorated if schools were federally funded?  

In D.C., where I have a cousin who did her practicum to become a teacher, her position as a full-time teacher’s aide in a small classroom in a very wealthy elementary school was entirely funded by the PTA. So you don’t even have to take your kids out of public school in order to do the equivalent of reducing the class size, just by putting in private money from a parent who’s a hedge fund manager.

And what about achievement gaps? How have they widened over the past decade or so? 

We saw a lot of shrinking of achievement gaps in the 60s and 70s. Much of that progress stopped around 1980. My impression is that progress has ground to a halt. In the most recent round of test scores, we’re seeing that we’ve just pretty much stopped making progress, which has never happened before. 

Wow.

That, in itself, is pretty dramatic. I think that the Great Recession had a huge detrimental impact on kids, but that other education policy decisions we’ve made have compounded that problem. For the past few decades, we’ve seen massive growth in gaps by social class or socioeconomic status. Income inequality has grown exponentially in the past few decades and the advantages that rich kids have have multiplied, basically leaving other kids in the dust.

It’s not surprising that wealth inequality in families mirrors education inequities in general. But it’s still depressing. 

The gaps have gotten so big that it’s become literally impossible for most parents to even begin to provide their kids with the advantages that these very rich kids now have. This is a gilded age level of disparity. Over the past decade, not only did the wealthiest people barely take a hit [in the Great Recession], they fully recovered and have done better than ever over the past decade, while everybody else has been stagnating and trying to keep their heads above water. 

Assuming that this pattern holds — and there’s no reason to think that it wouldn’t hold or get stronger — that should trouble us the most. There is such a big gap between kids with big advantages and everybody else. Obviously that’s correlated with race, although it’s not “about” race. That’s a trend that has been particularly pronounced in the past decade. And that’s where we are going into this wall [that is COVID-19] that we’re talking about.

Now, as we face COVID-19, and with this backdrop of decades of budget cuts, high teacher turnover, and massive wealth-gap disparities, what are your concerns about reopening? 

There are a couple of really big big factors. Certainly, schools today are taking on much more than what we think of as traditional education.

Teachers are on the front lines of dealing with poverty and inequity issues, that, frankly, as a society, we’ve dumped on them to deal with, while complaining that they’re not doing enough of what they should be doing anyway. We’re giving them much less money to do all of this, which is a really interesting way to go about tackling this problem. 

What’s come to the fore during this pandemic is schools are saying, “Look, we’re going to do the best we can when it comes to compensating for education, but really our first, second and third priority is going to have to be providing a stop gap for the loss of basics that kids are experiencing.”

Like meals. And health care.

What’s really happened over the past few decades, as we’ve increased poverty, increased inequality, increased diversity in our school systems and resources, not only for schools, but across the board, is that we have also decimated social safety. Schools are now kids sources of food, clothing, social services, counseling, laundry, you name it. Half of all kids in this country are in low income households, and it will be much more now because of the millions of parents who have lost their jobs.

Right. Whatever situation we were in before the pandemic, it’s even more precarious now.

How can we deliver meals, if half our kids needed meals before now? When three quarters of our kids need meals? How do we do that? How do we provide counseling, when our kids are under a level of stress that we can’t even imagine, right? They’ve got one in our unemployed mom trying to scramble and figure out how she can make you know, the $600 that’s about to go away [in Unemployment Benefits] so they don’t get evicted. 

We are putting a ton of pressure on teachers to deliver on academics in a way that they’re not equipped to do — because they aren’t trained to do it. And to talk about remote learning — remote learning is an intentional, planned, skilled, structured resource. We had an emergency scramble to have teachers do things that in most cases, they’ve never done, and they’re working with students who lack the resources to do it. So, that’s what schools are facing, while also being criticised for doing it poorly, which is shocking. 

Going into this school year, teachers are facing this dilemma of: What is my top priority? Should I even be prioritizing learning when a third to half of my kids may be going hungry? Or kids who may only have internet access for one hour a day and have one device  for four people? I don’t think I should be prioritizing their vocabulary. These are the trade-offs that teachers are making.

To be fair, these are similar trade-offs that they’ve been facing for a long time. But right now, it’s so much more stark and acute than it’s ever been.