Funding Our Schools in the Wake of COVID-19
The novel coronavirus is wreaking havoc on more than the health in our communities. No matter how you look at it, the current economic reality and forecast are bleak. Seventeen million Americans have filed for unemployment (2.2 million in Colorado) in the past three weeks, undercounting the real number of those who have lost their jobs in the response to COVID given long waits to file and the fact that the benefit is not provided to workers without documentation. Goldman Sachs is projecting a significant contraction of GDP and an unemployment rate of 15% come the fall, five points higher than peak unemployment following the 2008 recession.
This is painful news for families across the country. It is also bad news for our states, cities, and local public sector who rely on local tax revenues to fund their work. As the economy contracts, tax revenue goes down, and some Colorado estimates project around a $2 billion (and growing) shortfall for the next fiscal year. This at a time when public sector services in local communities will be in high demand due to the public health and economic fallout of COVID. The Joint Budget Committee (JBC), who will meet in May, now faces a task of setting a balanced budget for the fiscal year that begins in July.
What will this mean for our public schools?
The Governor’s budget, written during a far rosier economic forecast, requested about $4.5 billion of the General Fund for K-12 education, representing about 35% of the $13.4 billion General Fund request. As the JBC puts together the budget, it is likely a question of “how much” rather than “whether” K-12 education will face cuts.
There are federal dollars on the way. The CARES Act provides Colorado about $2.2 billion for local and state relief; Colorado’s Legislative Council estimates that local city and county governments will access a little more than a quarter of those funds, leaving $1.68 billion to support the state’s budget. Of this, $121 million is earmarked for K-12. $213 million is allocated for higher education students and institutions. In addition, other federal monies for education are available; $44 million will be available through the Governor’s Emergency Education Fund which are grants that the Governor will administer to the most significantly impacted education communities for emergency educational services including child care, early education, social emotional support, and protection of education-related jobs.
The next two months will see how the JBC balances competing priorities. With school finance, as always, the equitable distribution of funds is at stake. Will the state leverage federal funds to maintain current educational funding as much as possible? Or will the state think about allocating resources differently, intentionally targeting school communities who are serving more students and families likely to be hardest hit by the public health and economic crises precipitated by COVID? Will dollars create and expand summer programming to include academics and enrichment? How will the state prioritize students who may need more intensive support when they return to in-person learning?
Our education system already creates “winners” and “losers,” communities who are more or less likely to receive the funds necessary to meet student needs. At A+ we hope the response to education spending in the wake of COVID prioritizes our most vulnerable student and community needs to a greater extent than we have in the past.
Note: many of the calculations cited in this piece are based on work by Alexis Senger, former Chief Analyst for the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budgeting under Governor Hickenlooper and Governor Ritter.