WASHINGTON — Georgia Rep. Rick Allen suggested Monday that more federal funding to help the nation’s schools as they prepare to reopen this fall will mortgage the futures of students it’s meant to help.
The three-term Augusta Republican said opening schools is “critical” but that lawmakers should do “a little math” before adding more to the national debt.
Over the last three months, the federal government’s discretionary spending has tripled — from $1.5 trillion to $5.5 trillion, he said. That amount would soar to $8.8 trillion if Congress adopts a sweeping coronavirus relief package approved by the U.S. House last month, he said.
“How would you explain this debt that we’re putting on the backs of these very children that we’re trying to figure out how to get back to school this fall?” Allen asked during a hearing in the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor.
Mark Johnson, superintendent of public instruction at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, responded that lawmakers must weigh competing demands of balancing budgets and providing students with the tools and strategies they need.
“Eventually, they’re going to have to pay,” he said. “It’s a very hard balance that we’re asking Congress to make.”
Other committee Republicans shared spending-related concerns.
North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, the committee’s ranking Republican, said it would be “irresponsible” to provide more federal education aid without first assessing the effectiveness of funds Congress has already spent.
“More spending does not guarantee better outcomes,” she said.
The federal government might not even be responsible for educating the nation’s children, she said. “I’m a student of the Constitution, and I’ve read it many, many times, and I fail to find the word ‘education’ in there,” she said.
Foxx did not speak to the specific needs of low-income students, students or color and other marginalized groups in her opening remarks — the theme of the Democratic-led hearing.
Instead, she pointed to guidance issued in April by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that suggested students in private schools should benefit from a representative share of education aid passed in a coronavirus relief package adopted in March.
The package included more than $30 billion in education-related aid, of which $13.5 billion is destined for public elementary and secondary schools and $14 billion for higher ed. The remainder was earmarked for a governors’ emergency education fund, which could be used for either school districts or colleges.
Committee Chair Bobby Scott of Virginia and other congressional Democrats sent a letter to DeVos last month objecting to her effort.
“The department’s new policy will direct districts to allocate additional resources and services to wealthier private school students, thereby leaving a smaller amount of funds available to serve public school students,” he wrote.
Education official pleas for aid
The COVID-19 relief package passed in March also included $150 billion in aid to cities and states, which face massive revenue losses as a result of nationwide shutdown orders.
On Monday, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., projected that state budget shortfalls will total $615 billion over the next three years.
The U.S. House passed another relief package last month that the U.S. Senate has not taken up. The $3 trillion package that would provide $60 billion to help schools cover the costs of supplies to reopen safely, buy education technology, support school counselors and more, according to Education Week.
The bill also includes some $1 trillion in aid to state, local, territorial and tribal governments, which is intended to help governments fund schools as well as other government services.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has dismissed the package and instead called for a more “narrowly targeted” response to the virus.
At Monday’s hearing, committee Democrats made a strong appeal for more federal education funding.
“Unless the federal government provides immediate relief, it won’t be a matter of whether education funding will be cut, but how deep the cuts will be,” Scott said.
Georgia Rep. Lucy McBath, a Marietta Democrat, called on her fellow committee members to find “solutions” as state revenues have plummeted due to the pandemic.
“When states start cutting their budget, education is one of the first areas to be cut,” she said. “Our students, frankly, really do deserve much better.”
Becky Pringle, vice president of National Education Association, agreed. Without more money for public education, students will not be able to return to school safely this fall, she testified.
“For us to think that we are going to send our students back to school safely and provide them with the quality education we believe they all deserve — we know that cannot happen,” she said. “We need the Senate to act right now.”
Michael Leachman, vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., agreed, calling the need for more aid “urgent.”
Federal aid is especially needed to support low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities and other disadvantaged groups, Scott and others said.
In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, we’re in the midst of another pandemic “that has plagued our country for generations,” McBath said. “We’re talking about, really, the racism and systemic inequities [it] causes in our public school system.”
Vulnerable students are less likely to attend schools that have the resources to quickly set up high-quality online learning programs, Scott said. And they’re less likely to have resources such as personal computers, access to high-speed internet service and at-home parental support.
Only 60% of low-income students and 60-70% of students in schools serving predominantly Black and Latino students regularly log in to online instruction, while 90% of high-income students do, he said.
Setbacks in education since the Great Recession, he added, have not affected all students equally, and reliance on local property taxes to fund education ensure those with the highest need are forced to do with less, he noted.
“Unfortunately, the achievement gaps exacerbated by COVID-19 have been widened even further,” he said.