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To Open the Schools Safely, Uncle Sam Will Have to Pay Up

Washington's wrangling over the politics of public education will put our kids and communities at risk unless politicians face up to fiscal and physical realities. They need to get it done now.

With the Senate's Labor Day recess fast approaching, time is short for Congress to provide the funding necessary for our nation's public schools to reopen sensibly and safely this fall. Local officials across the country are wrestling with how to do so, based on their on-the-ground assessments of risks, needs and capacities. What's not helping is the White House's wedge political strategy: threatening to withhold federal funds from school districts that don't reopen for in-person classes.

The need for new funding is obvious. Most Americans want schools to reopen safely so that our kids can continue their educational and social development. Working parents need relief from months of 24/7 house-bound child care. The economy will benefit if it is done prudently to minimize COVID-19 contagion risks. But there is simply no way that pre-COVID business-as-usual regimens in elementary and secondary schools will achieve that objective. There are multiple layers of extraordinary costs for COVID-19 testing, temporary facilities expansion to accommodate social distancing, sanitization, hybrid on-site and distance-learning solutions, protective equipment for school personnel, and even proper ventilation in some schools.

Although the HEROES Act, the Democrats' pandemic relief package passed by the House in May, would provide $90 billion to the education community to address tax-revenue shortfalls, that number looks unlikely to also cover public-health-related expense increases unless the states also receive sufficient tax revenue offsets to pass through to schools. Extraordinary federal funding is needed to reassure worried parents that their kids will not bring home a deadly virus to infect their families or cause lifelong medical impairment to the children themselves. Truth be told, we don't even know what we don't know about the coronavirus on the pediatric medical front, an important point to keep in mind before opening the floodgates to widespread schoolhouse social interaction and group activities across the age spectrum.

President Trump's brash bluff that he would yank school funding from districts that don't play by his edicts is straight out of The Art of the Deal. But recently the Supreme Court ruled decisively that the occupant of the Oval Office is still subject to the rule of law, and the pertinent law in this case is the 1974 Budget and Impoundment Control Act. Under its provisions, Trump can play a stall game for 45 days, but that clock will run out before the November elections. And while stoking anti-elite resentments in his base, he and his down-ballot allies could alienate millions of voting school parents who consider such tactics dangerous to the kids, so this wedge strategy may backfire.

Equally disconcerting is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's "presto-chango" thesis that public schools, having been designed architecturally for closer spacing, can magically provide everyday social distancing on command. By the estimate of Fairfax County, Va., school Superintendent Scott Brabrand, his suburban Washington, D.C., system would have to build five Pentagons worth of additional space to achieve social distancing with a five-day school week.

In the Senate, there are already proposals to provide funding to help reopen schools safely, but mostly from Democrats. The GOP's Senate leadership will wise up soon. They can follow the face-saving lead of Vice President Mike Pence and posture federal education aid to states as an "incentive" (wink-wink) for their schools to provide a feasible level of in-class instruction. Meanwhile, the White House continues to fan parental disdain for at-home schooling.

Don't be surprised if the House returns with a freestanding bill to fund extraordinary pandemic-related educational expenses without GOP strings attached — with a bonus carrot for on-site instruction costs and not a stick. It would make impressive political theater as long as the chamber's Democratic leaders are wise enough to size and structure their bill reasonably to avoid re-election branding as puppets of the teachers' unions.

Some big-city school systems aren't waiting for guidance or money from Washington. Even before California Gov. Gavin Newsom's announcement on Friday that schools in 32 of the state's 58 counties would not be allowed to reopen classrooms in the fall, Los Angeles and San Diego had already decided to open online-only, joining to say that it's clear that "the pandemic is out of control." Adjoining Orange County is also on the state's no-open list, rendering moot the county school board's earlier push for in-classroom study without masks or social distancing.

Favoring our Constitution's 10th Amendment, I've always preferred that education policymaking and funding remain in the realm of the states and not the federal government, although I do appreciate the ongoing socioeconomic issues of nationwide equality of opportunity that necessitate federal involvement. But now is not the time for federalism purity tests: National leaders in both parties must step up to today's unique and unforeseen problem of funding revenue-starved local governments.

There is not a single public school district in America whose voters ever approved an operating tax levy geared to fund pandemic education scenarios. Today, only Congress can fund the transient public health emergency costs of providing safe, free public education to more than 50 million American children for the benefit of future generations while protecting the health of their families and teachers. Even die-hard fiscal skinflints must think about preparing our future workforce to compete globally with other nations, some of which are solving this problem adroitly and quietly.

Policy aficionados can expect this battle to conclude in a grand congressional compromise over components of the coming round of federal pandemic aid, probably in the ballpark of $2 trillion all told. Myriad issues will be ground like sausage links in that process, ranging from infrastructure to business immunity for COVID-19 litigation, as well as the size, timing and method of distributing federal aid to states and political subdivisions; income support for lower-income households and unemployed workers; and yet more handouts for small businesses. Unless House Democrats are drugged asleep in conference, however, it's far-fetched to think that such a package will include a congressional delegation of authority to the executive branch to selectively impound a specific school district's funding: Carrots, yes, but nix on sticks.

As this legislation is signed, partisans on both sides will claim to have saved the country and our schoolkids from the opposition. So be it. It will be a messy mishmash, but the best that our federalist constitutional democracy can muster in these dysfunctional times.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

Girard Miller is the finance columnist for Governing. He can be reached at
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