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Huge gaps in funding already existed between schools in districts like Wilmington, Delaware, which serve some of the most vulnerable children, and schools in wealthier communities. Credit: Photo: Saquan Stimpson for The Hechinger Report

Our way of life has shifted so radically as we distance ourselves from one another to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, it’s even hard to properly mourn the death of loved ones lost to it. The lack of presidential leadership contributes to the vast uncertainty we all face.

But we must gather ourselves for more disruption and disquiet as a looming recession threatens to further reduce tax revenues for states, putting services we rely on at risk. Funding for schools will most certainly be slashed because it’s one of the largest single expenditures in state budgets. School staffs will be downsized and student support services reduced if we don’t collectively fight for federal relief and stimulus spending to make up for the shortages.

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We pay taxes for times like these. But I’m not optimistic that an administration that orchestrated the largest one-time reduction in the corporate tax rate in U.S. history will see it that way. Leaders who are willing to sacrifice lives to open up an economy, comparing workers to military soldiers, won’t think twice about cutting services for students with disabilities and low-income districts.

If there was ever a time to mobilize and organize to fight for adequate school funding it is now.

Most education policy experts recognize that the $13.2 billion the CARES Act allocated for K-12 education is woefully inadequate.

Last month, School Board Partners, a group of dozens of school board members from across the country, signed an open letter to Congress in response to the CARES Act, the $2 trillion spending bill passed in March, urging federal legislators to pass an “equity recovery bill” that would “provide critical learning support for our country’s youth and their families.” Most education policy experts recognize that the $13.2 billion the CARES Act allocated for K-12 education is woefully inadequate. It wouldn’t even cover the funding gaps that existed between have and have-not schools before the coronavirus hit. Prior to the pandemic, schools dominated by students of color received $23 billion less than majority white districts, according to education think tank EdBuild.

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Ultimately, we’ll need a stimulus: spending that goes beyond relief to achieve a semblance of funding adequacy and equity. The board members’ letter to Congress states, “Lack of action will do irreparable damage to a generation of kids and impact the quality of our workforce, far into the future.” They are absolutely right.

Micah Ali, board president of the Compton Unified School District and one of the letter’s signatories, told me in an email, “If we emerge from this pandemic with a crippled education system, then we have failed. This is not a numbers game — children’s livelihoods and futures are at stake.”

Related: After coronavirus subsides, we must pay teachers more

Financial resources are positively correlated with student outcomes, according to 2017 study by the education think tank the Learning Policy Institute. The amount of funding a school receives is clearly connected to class size, number of personnel, instructional support materials, early childhood services, teacher compensation, transportation and other critical amenities that impact student achievement. Budget cuts after the Great Recession in 2008 led to sizable losses in academic achievement for students living in counties most affected by the economic downturn, according to a 2019 study.

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Teachers and other school employees, including parent liaisons, aides, social workers, nurses and counselors, know too well that funding matters. Teachers have battled board members as well as state leaders for adequate state funding in recent years, striking for increases. Now, labor and districts must fight together for the financial resources needed to properly educate children. School board members can’t get the funding kids deserve alone; they must quickly ally themselves and form alliances with unions, parents and community groups.

In their April letter, School Board Partners ask Congress for an additional $200 billion to be allocated to the states to support K-12 schooling. This would include a commitment of $15 billion to provide free broadband access and a laptop to every student in America who needs one, and $9 billion for educator retraining. The group seeks $140 billion to enable school districts to increase time in school by extending the school day and/or year, at least for the 2020-21 school year. Signatories want $30 billion to pay for telehealth counselors and doctors who can assess the mental and physical health of every vulnerable student. Recognizing that students don’t live in schools, they live in communities, the board members request a commitment of $6 billion to ensure every student has housing. 

These are all worthy goals that everyone who cares about the future of our public education system should rally behind.

“School districts and charter schools have stayed the course and pivoted in remarkable ways to feed and educate our children at this time,” Ali said. “Shall we be rewarded by annihilating all ability for us to do so in the future?”

The letter calls upon President Donald Trump, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Mitch McConnel to act now. However, they won’t move until the rest of us will. If there’s one lesson the coronavirus has taught us, it’s that we are deeply interconnected. When our neighbors are sick, we are vulnerable. The School Board Partners wrote their call to action for all of us, and it’s time we act as if we are all in this together.  

This story about the CARES Act was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Previously,...

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