As schools brace for more challenges, federal help is urgently needed

Photo: Rosedale Union School District/FacebookGeneral overall view of the entrance at Almondale Elementary School in the Rosedale Union School District amid the global coroinavirus Covid-19 pandemic outbreak in Bakersfield, Calif. on April 2, 2020. Photo: Rosedale Union School District/FacebookGeneral overall view of the entrance at Almondale Elementary School in the Rosedale Union School District amid the global coroinavirus Covid-19 pandemic outbreak in Bakersfield, Calif. on April 2, 2020. Rick MillerApril 22, 2020Creating clarity on what the next chapter for schools looks like and getting students safely back into school next fall will be one of the biggest challenges facing our nation’s educational system in modern times.
As districts begin to plan for how they will eventually welcome California students back to classrooms, President Trump and Congress need to put forth a federal education stimulus package that moves our schools toward more stable fiscal ground.
When schools return to their new normal next year, they will be facing what some researchers are calling a COVID-slide, learning loss experienced by many of our most disadvantaged students coupled with traumas associated with unemployment, food insecurities and homelessness that are especially impacting students in urban areas.
According to a new study from the Northwest Evaluation Association, or NWEA, “students will return in fall 2020 with roughly 70 percent of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year. However, in mathematics, students are likely to show much smaller learning gains, returning with less than 50 percent of the learning gains and in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions.”
This slide should be of enormous concern to all Californians given the well-established connection between academic success and economic mobility.
We also need to recognize the social and emotional needs for students and for teachers and consider ways that schools can meet those needs.
The work of creating truly responsive learning experiences for students upon re-entry will fall almost exclusively on teachers, and supporting them while recognizing that many of the teachers and leaders in our schools have also struggled through this traumatic situation obligates our systems to pay particular attention to the social and emotional needs of our adults as well.
These realities call for a massive increase in resources.
Unfortunately, in California we are heading in the opposite direction. Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest district, is confronting $200 million in coronavirus costs thus far and California’s existing school budget challenges were well-documented before the pandemic. Earlier this year, Governor Newsom highlighted increasing financial strains on school districts relating to rising pension obligations and he called rising costs for special education a crisis — in Newsom’s own words, “a real shame.”
A 2018 study aptly titled “the Silent Recession” showed that while state support for public schools in California was increasing, their expenses were rising faster as a result of cost pressures from pensions, health care and special education.
Sadly, just as the need for additional support increases dramatically in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, those previous obligations will now also increase dramatically, principally because the state’s pension system has lost tens of billions in the stock market collapse over the past month, and districts are obligated to pick up the difference.
Health care costs are expected to increase as will the cost for special education in these uncertain times of distance learning. Add all this to the fact that that schools get 58 percent of their revenues from the state and another 32 percent from other sources and the state is particularly vulnerable to swings in the stock market, and we can safely assume the potential for significant shortfalls to education funding, while school costs significantly increase and students’ need explode.
Indeed, this is the perfect tsunami about to crash on California’s 6 million students.
It is distressing to think that the students in the graduating class of 2021 were kindergartners in 2008, beginning their schooling in the previous economic downturn and amidst massive school budget reductions. During their early years in public schools, pink slips and cutbacks were symbols of the times. Collectively as an education community we will be experiencing this déjà vu and even much greater financial challenges than ever before.
Recognizing the impact on our schools, beginning in 2008, the federal government funneled nearly $7 billion in stimulus funding to California through the American Resource and Recovery Act. In Long Beach Unified, to name one district, that translated to $108 million in federal stimulus funding from 2008 to 2011. In 2020, facing a significantly larger challenge, initial relief funding for Long Beach in response to the coronavirus pandemic totaled $1.2 million from the state and an estimated $10 to $15 million from the feds.
Our teachers, students and schools need substantially more federal stimulus funding than the $1.6 billion federal investment thus far. President Trump and Congress need to recognize the coming tsunami and in the next round of relief funding prioritize education — our kids are counting on them.
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Rick Miller is executive director of the CORE Districts, a collaboration of the some of the state’s largest school districts situated in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Sacramento, Oakland and San Francisco. Rick was elected to the Rocklin Unified School board in 2018 where he currently serves as President.
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