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$54 billion in stimulus money still isn’t enough to rescue US schools

A female teacher wearing a maroon and flower face-mask, stands in front of a laptop behind a clear barrier at the front of a classroom.
REUTERS/Rachel Wisniewski
US teachers need more than Congress is giving them.
  • Karen Ho
By Karen Ho

Global finance and economics reporter

The $900 billion stimulus bill awaiting final passage by the US Congress includes $54.3 billion for K-12 education, significantly more than the $13.2 billion the CARES Act gave out in March. However, thousands of American teachers at still at risk of layoffs after Democrats dropped their request for direct aid to state and local governments.

The $54.3 billion is specifically for the repair and replacement of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems (or HVAC), as well as paying for testing, cleaning, PPE, and other safety supplies to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infections and help reopen classrooms.

“This funding is intended to help schools in their work to reopen in a pandemic environment,” said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of advocacy and governance at the School Superintendents Association (AASA).

A much bigger gap for many states

The amount set aside for education in the stimulus might sound like a lot, but it’s likely not enough for its intended purpose, Ellerson Ng said, much less the looming budget shortfalls facing schools across the country.

Public school funding in the US comes from mostly from state and local sources, with just 7.7% per state, on average, coming from the federal government, according to the most recent US Census data. Many school districts across the US are facing budget cuts as states and cities grapple with revenue shortfalls. Without support for state and local governments in the stimulus bill, education professionals worry school districts may have to cut resources for teaching.

“While important help is included, what is left out is simply wrong: no funding for the E-Rate program to help the 16 million students without home Internet access or devices despite bipartisan support for that solution; no aid to state and local governments that will likely lead to greater job losses of frontline workers and further stall the economic recovery,” Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association teacher’s union, said in a statement.

Expected cuts on top of existing cuts

The states making additional cuts to education funding will be adding to an already difficult year. After a brief recovery in the summer, the most recent data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows the total number of local government employees working in the education sector in November fell again to 7.35 million, 688,000 fewer than in February.

BLS does not specifically identify teacher layoffs from other local government positions in education. But news reports show there have already been thousands of furloughs and layoffs of teachers, special education teachers, tutors, and teaching assistants. Many non-instructional staff, such as bus drivers, librarians, coaches, administrators, as well as custodial or cafeteria employees, have also been laid off.

The outlook ahead

At a local level, educators will need to make sure any funding cuts to education budgets do not disproportionately fall on vulnerable student groups, such as recent immigrants, those with disabilities, or low-income families.

There is also the possibility of additional aid to state and local governments from the Biden administration after he is inaugurated next month. However, that depends on many variables, including the outcome of the two senate races in Georgia.

Democrats need to win both seats in order to gain control of the Senate and pass bills like the scaled-down version of HEROES Act that was approved by the House of Representatives in October. No members of the GOP have supported the bill, which includes $175 billion for K-12 schools, $5 billion specifically for school ventilation upgrades, as well as $417 billion in fiscal relief for state and local governments.

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