The Urgent Need to Rethink How We Fund Our Schools

Federal help is needed now to reopen schools safely and address educational gaps. But for the long term, K-12 education needs to become more financially efficient and prioritize equity.

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(Shutterstock)
When COVID-19 shut schoolhouse doors in March, it illuminated how vital our nation's schools are in providing not just academic learning but also services for our children's growth and well-being. Yet, as schools work to reopen and the pandemic wreaks havoc on state revenues, K-12 education is at risk of facing some of the largest budget constraints in recent history.

Given this impending challenge, now is the time for the federal government to step in with funding support to safely reopen schools and address the educational gaps resulting from COVID-19. As Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principals Association, put it to the state Senate Finance Committee, "How can we contemplate cutting staff when we know students will be coming back to school with educational gaps? Most alarming will most assuredly be increases in social, emotional and trauma-related concerns."

Federal support, however, is not sustainable in the long term, so states and school districts must work to re-evaluate education spending, making creative but hard decisions to become more financially efficient.

Although today's challenges are severe, school funding has been a concern across the nation for years. As the pandemic struck, in many states K-12 funding levels had not yet returned to pre-Great Recession levels. Additionally, school-funding court battles have been ongoing in states across the country, seeking to address the equitable use of education funds. Rising teacher pension costs have also continued to consume larger shares of school spending, and the uncertainty in the financial market has exacerbated this problem.

Yet in this time of fiscal strain, our K-12 schools will likely have to provide more educational and social services to students because of COVID-19. Schools will have to find ways to catch students up from the loss of learning that occurred over the extended summer, while also being required to spend more to acquire items like personal protective equipment (PPE) and to allow for safe and appropriate distancing on buses and in school buildings. At the same time, schools that are opening their doors are being forced to prepare for a potential return to remote learning; items like Wi-Fi hot spots, laptops, online tools and platforms, and other resources are required to ensure that quality learning can happen remotely.

In the Great Recession, we were reminded once again that high-poverty districts are disproportionately impacted by economic downturns and associated cuts in funding. The same is surely true now as COVID-19 impacts our neediest communities the hardest. As costs to safely operate rise and revenues fall, we cannot shortchange our schools or students, especially those most vulnerable.

That's why Congress must fund a new stimulus package for K-12 schools. Funding from the original pandemic relief package, the CARES Act, helped get schools through the spring and start planning for the fall, and more stimulus dollars are needed right now to reopen schools, whether for in-person instruction, virtually or some hybrid of the two.

At the same time, we must recognize the finite resources the federal government has to expend, with many competing sectors lobbying for relief funds. States and districts need to be critical of their own spending, ensuring that funds are used efficiently and effectively. Hard but necessary changes must be made. In Vermont, we successfully worked to overcome significant political challenges to consolidating school districts — a start to addressing the cost pressures of the state's declining student population amid rising education spending.

In March, we saw states and schools quickly adapt and reimagine education so that our children could continue to get the education and services they deserve. The type of problem-solving and ingenuity that took place then must continue as we rethink school finance and spending in the age of COVID-19 and beyond. States and districts must consider how to economize for the future so they will be ready to weather the unpredictable storms that are sure to come.


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

Former governor of Vermont
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