During this past year, COVID-19 has catalyzed the quick development of infrastructure for projected technology-friendly lifestyles such as online universities and remote work. On the other hand, COVID-19 has also exacerbated countless issues and expanded upon pre-existing problems such as the lack of federal funding to public education, specifically in rural and low-income urban areas. But from another lens, COVID-19 created an opportunity to revolutionize and re-imagine federal funding to these public schools. This is a salient problem that, now more than ever, is pushing for a solution.
During the beginning of the Trump Administration, public schools across America were struggling. Students were performing at less than 40% their grade level, school weeks were falling to 4 days due to lack of funds, and schools were facing teacher shortages due to falling real salaries. For the fourth consecutive year of his term, during a global pandemic, Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy Devos proposed a nearly 8% budget cut to the U.S. Department of Education. Similar to the other budget cuts of his entire term, this cut directly affected teachers’ salaries, programs in both low-income and high-income public schools, and schools’ abilities to afford better educational resources, notably with new, and often expensive, technology.
When COVID-19 hit hard in March 2020, schools faced even larger financial hurdles than ever before. American public schools tried to mail out the students’ informational workbooks, financially support their low-income students with access to technology for their Zoom classes, and support state-funded free lunch and fee-waiver programs. In the 2019-2020 school year, the benchmark of student’s retention dropped by one-third its normal amount. This was due to a variety of reasons, most notably a lack of attendance that coincided with online classes in low-income elementary schools.
The unequal access to education is not novel; these low-income families have always had a lack of parental help in completing assignments and a lack of access to technological resources, which the ability to access has been shown to increase student’s capabilities by nearly 100% in all subjects, setting these students back since the early 2000’s. The problem has simply intensified with the pandemic. Many low-income student’s parents are essential workers, so it becomes more difficult to monitor their childrens’ attendance. This chronic absenteeism reinforces disengagement, which can have detrimental effects to the child’s future, thereby reducing their future participation in the labor force and lowering the extrapolated U.S. GDP. Additionally, many students who lack a stable access to the internet or the devices are now required to attend school — and the district does not have the emergency funding to provide it.
This emergency funding was inaccessible to these schools due to the sharp political climate in March 2020. COVID shut down most elementary, high schools, and colleges the first week of March, meaning schools would have needed the funds to support this within the first week of transition to online to avoid children falling behind. Yet, the House and the Senate could not come to an agreement and pass a stimulus package, The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, until March 31, 2020. Their lagging and debating left schools without the emergency funding they needed to keep students on track. Additionally, the first stimulus package debated had barely addressed education at all, leaving most schools having to wait until an amendment in early August 2020 to receive a fair amount of funding. The lack of access to this funding left disadvantaged students behind by almost half a year.
Despite Trump’s cuts, the CARES Act, specifically the amendment of the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Education Relief (ESEER) Fund, passed in early August 2020 and then amended in December, allowing public schools to gain roughly $60B in federal funding in the past year. The purpose of the CARES Act was to account for these new necessary expenses that were not included in each public school’s original budget proposal for the switch to online school and shortages from the COVID recession. This was the second most amount of federal funding public schools have ever seen, the first being the Great Depression’s ARRA. But, even the funds from the CARES Act weren’t enough to forestall the economic shortages that America’s public education system has faced for many years. On average, each state has used about 65% of their funding from the ESEER funds, but are still having a hard time making sure that these funds land in their low-income students’ benefits.
Funds have instead become a victim of administrative deficiencies. Currently, 47% of all public education funding comes from the state revenue, 45% from local government, and the remaining 8% comes from the federal government. This means that students in disadvantaged communities with lower local government funding and states with less population and more agricultural economies that have lower state revenues pay the price due to a tax-based, state revenue funding system. Data has shown that states with the highest income have the most to spend on education, and their pupils are found to be among the highest achieving students due to this higher amount of funding and access to more expensive resources. Instead of education, the majority of our federal funding is going towards national defense, despite America having one of the largest militias in the world with the largest income gap in the world. The remaining 30% is then divided between public health care programs, interest payments and debts, social security, and then finally, education. If our public education system is based on this income gap, and students coming from families with lower income have less access, this divide will continue to separate and further disadvantage our low income students.
This begs the question: how can the government create an even more equitable public school system for low-income students and address the inadequacies of their education thus far?
They need to begin making economic solutions that align with their policy goals. Administrations must realize that students on free lunch programs and in low-income areas will need more personal assistance and the communities require substantially more funds to grow their schools to have equitable student bodies. This could be done in various ways, including vouchers to low-income students to attend high-income public schools or expensive private schools. This could also be done using a more widespread tax redistribution to help make schools across the board more equitable.
The voucher system would mean giving low-income families a rise of income, on the condition that a minimum amount must go towards education. A rise in income will help families to be able to afford their regular public subsidies without needing to forgo otherwise expensive educational costs of purchasing their children a better education. On average, all American families spend the bulk of their money on housing, transportation, and food. But, low-income families spend a much larger portion of their income on housing than their high-income counterparts. The top 20% of American families spend nearly 4% of their income on their child’s education, equating to about $4000 a year whereas the bottom 10% of American families have just around 1% to spend on their children’s education, equating to about $600 a year. That large discrepancy can make up for the some private school tuitions, private tutors and assistance for higher-income students, and better access to technology, as we saw with the struggles this past year. High-income families could afford to buy online or socially distant tutors and better equipped technology as their students shifted to online learning, while their lower counterparts struggled to find a computer and stable internet connection just to attend.
The increase in forced educational spending would eventually lead to an increase in the education their child is receiving because low-income families could now afford to send their children to the otherwise too expensive schools with the extra resources that these students require. They also would have more funds to potentially afford better internet connection, technology, or even a tutor. With better access to these resources, children would be able to better excel and equate to their peers. In America, a better high school education almost always leads back to the ability to get into better colleges, despite students having the same academic report card. As these students attend these better, more reputable high schools with their voucher programs and their students are excelling, their students have more freedom to attend better colleges. Attending a higher college increases that student’s human capital and therefore fights even further disadvantages that come from being born into a low-income community.
Another alternative to the voucher system would be to encourage tax redistribution across the nation. Public schools are funded almost entirely on local and state government revenues, which are made up of how much their community is paying in taxes. The higher income a family has, the more likely they are to pay in taxes. Therefore, by redistributing the tax system into one where each community pays the same lump-sum in taxes, then public schools would have equal funding, making them have more equal resources for all their students.
This would require a more progressive income tax, making a high-income earner pay a higher tax rate than their low-income counterparts, which makes their after-tax incomes more equal. Then, the redistribution of those higher taxes would fall on state government and public education officials. As opposed to allowing a certain percentage of local tax revenue to fund public schools, state officials would allocate a certain amount to different educational lapses, and use a certain percent of the higher revenues from the higher-income districts to fund and support the disadvantaged communities across the state. By redistributing the state taxes to allocate that each school receives the correct amount of funding to end up equaling the same lump-sum amount of budget, then these public schools would be more equitable and could potentially provide equal access to education and resources for both high-income and low-income communities.
These solutions come with a few potential hurdles. There are many political hurdles to passing progressive taxes or funding for the voucher system. Many right-leaning politicians argue that progressive taxes and voucher systems punish the hard work of citizens by requiring those with higher incomes to give back a higher percentage of their income. This has been thought to disincentivize student’s future desire to attend college and get higher paying jobs. It also encourages prejudice, especially in a society like America where there is a large emphasis based on equality and equality of opportunities. However, this progressive tax system in practice, should actually create equality of opportunities. How can we expect students to pay the price of their parents’ lack of funds?
COVID-19 has the potential to highlight the next step in public education in America and is providing a clear cut look at what inaccessibility can lead to in disadvantaged communities. With this more clear image, it also lends itself to invest in these communities more than ever, starting with the number one access tool used in America, education. The best investment into disadvantaged communities we can do during this time is to use economic policy to line up with the administration’s promises of making a shift and investments into public education.