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Op-ed: Only Congress can rescue local education budgets

Parents will breathe a sigh of relief when school buildings reopen, signaling a return to normalcy at last. But Washington schools won’t be equipped to serve students because of an imminent financial crisis, which only the U.S. Congress has the power to prevent.

The 1.1 million students served by Washington public schools will return to classrooms carrying a new set of challenges after months of lost learning, exacerbated inequity and new trauma. At the very moment school districts across Washington will be desperate for greater resources to meet this unprecedented challenge – more counselors, more Learning Assistance Program (LAP) teachers, new technology to meet the second wave of the pandemic – they will find their budgets slashed and hiring frozen.

By far, the largest share of school funding comes from the state – not the federal government or local property taxes. The state provides 69 percent of Seattle Public Schools’ revenue. The share is even greater elsewhere: Bellingham gets 72 percent of its revenue from the state, and Spokane relies on the state for 82 percent of its budget.

Meanwhile, Washington and states across the country have watched tax revenue plummet as the pandemic precipitates an economic recession. Without a state income tax, Washington relies primarily on sales taxes to fund its budget.

This revenue source remained relatively stable during the Great Recession that followed the 2008 housing crash. But our current recession looks very different, with many restaurants, hotels and retail establishments operating at a reduced capacity or shuttered entirely.

Retail and food service sales dropped 8.7 percent from February to March, according to the Census Bureau. The government’s March sales report showed losses for nearly all retail sectors with the exception of grocery stores, where most sales are not taxed in our state.

Washington legislators, obligated by law to adjust appropriations to meet declining revenues, will be forced to cut funding for local school districts. Anticipating cuts, local districts are already leaving positions vacant where possible. 

Congress included some support for state budgets in its $2 trillion relief bill, the CARES Act, signed into law on March 27. Unfortunately, the amount dedicated to state education budget relief falls far short of current need and historical precedent. The CARES Act allocated $30.75 billion to an “Education Stabilization Fund” – 43 percent less than the $53.60 billion in state education support included in the 2009 stimulus package, the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.”

This figure comes nowhere near the $175 billion that the National School Boards Association, the National PTA, and the nation’s two largest teachers unions say will be needed to stabilize state education budgets. 

 The 2009 federal support helped offset the majority of state funding cuts in about half of districts nationwide, and covered part of the shortfall in another 45 percent of districts, according to a 2012 study from the Center on Education Policy.  Despite this federal support, the report found that in districts facing funding decreases, 85 percent cut teachers or other education staff.

A decade ago, Congress recognized that without federal intervention, the Great Recession would cripple state and local education budgets. Now, as states face far steeper revenue declines and students need more support than ever before, Congress came up short. Dashing hopes for further state budget relief in another stimulus package, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has instead suggested states should be allowed to declare bankruptcy.

Getting back to school will help put things right, restoring familiar routine, closing education gaps and reuniting kids with friends and caring adults who missed them. When students walk through their school doors this fall, they must not find fewer teachers and larger classes. Public education can rise to the moment, providing the educational, social and emotional support students need to come out of this crisis – but only if Congress passes another relief package with targeted support for state education budgets.

Eamonn Collins is a teacher, Bellingham resident, and former education policy advisor to members of the U.S. House and Senate.

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