Why the Inequity?
Nearly half of the nation’s approximately 13,000 school districts are looking at making the deepest cuts to education spending in a quarter of a century. This will entail eliminating or severely reducing programs such as online speech therapy and laying off hundreds or perhaps even thousands of administrators, teachers, and other staff in response to the financial devastation resulting from COVID-19.
Although the impact on schools is indeed historic, it will in no way be random. The districts that are the most vulnerable share a common demographic. These districts are primarily black, Latino, and low income. What’s more, they share a crucial trait of their budgets. They receive more than half of their funding from state aid.
While relying upon state funding has always been precarious due to its potentially volatile funding streams such as sales tax and income tax, in the current economic turmoil, those tax lines have been devastated. Consequently, the growing recession threatens to deepen the divide between wealthy and poor school districts.
It’s a Flaw in the Design
Despite the very helpful $13.5 billion that Congress recently appropriated to help school districts to relieve some of the financial pain, that money won’t be nearly enough to offset the anticipated losses. Without another bailout from the federal government, many states are projecting that they will need to reduce their budgets by 5-20 percent.
While cuts will impact most districts in some way, those with budgets built primarily on revenues from property taxes will suffer less pain. Education Week analyzed 2016 school spending data, the latest available, to identify which districts will be most at risk of harm because of their heavy dependence on state aid. Education Week’s analysis shows more than 600 districts get over 75 percent of their assistance from their states, putting them at considerable risk of deep cuts.
Hawaii is a case in point. Since Hawaii is a single, statewide district, where no revenue from property taxes is used to fund schools, school funding is entirely dependent on sales and income taxes generated by Hawaii’s flourishing tourism industry. In the current financial crisis, the tourism industry is all but non-existent.
As a result, the state’s school system is looking at a shortfall of $1.5 billion next year. In response, the governor is calling for salary cuts of as high as 30 percent for teachers and those who deliver online speech therapy. Such a substantial reduction will inevitably undercut teacher retention and recruitment in a moment when the state already faces steep challenges in hiring teachers.
Money and Achievement are Linked Together
Students thrive academically in stable learning environments built upon reliable financial resources. Because of this, economists have long warned that schools should avoid being funded by unreliable sources such as sales and income tax, which fluctuate with unemployment rates and the stock market.
However, financing schools with state sales and income tax revenue was a politically acceptable strategy when the courts demanded in the 1970s that states smooth out the school funding inequities between wealthier and poorer districts.
The vulnerability of that strategy became starkly apparent in the Recession of 2007-2009 when sales and income tax revenues took a significant downturn. What began with the noblest of intentions turned counterproductive as the gulf between wealthy and poor school districts expanded even further.
By 2010, the damage had become severe as more than 300,000 public school librarians, counselors, office secretaries, and teachers were laid off. And as was to be expected, these layoffs fell disproportionately on low-income urban and rural districts.
Not surprisingly, a study released last year showed that the districts which cut the deepest in the Great Recession revealed the least progress in students’ academic performance, as measured by standardized test scores.
Since historically, there’s been little political will within the states to rectify the inequitable school spending patterns, unless there is a massive new federal bailout package, K-12 funding advocates are pushing for alternative budget-cutting strategies. These include making more significant cuts from wealthier districts, curtailing online speech therapy, temporarily capping property tax revenue, or overhauling funding formulas.
But such attempts will invariably face pushback from suburban parents and their political representatives. It remains to be seen if the funding inequity that could potentially devastate poor school districts will be solved so that millions of our children will receive the education they so richly deserve.
Help Your Students Cope with the Crisis
The response to the COVID-19 Pandemic is unprecedented. Because of our unique role in children’s K-12 education including online speech therapy, we feel a responsibility to do what we can to assist schools, therapists, and students with this transition to online learning and seclusion. To ensure that our students remain engaged and supported, our therapists are providing complimentary “Support Sessions” to the country’s youth. We are also assisting schools by training their therapists for remote therapy.