5 Themes in Education Policy and Advocacy

Experts discussed the future of K-12 education and the impact of COVID-19 on school budgets.

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February 2021, Volume 44, Issue 6

During the 2021 virtual National Leaders Conference, education and policy experts discussed the future of K-12 education under a new administration and the impact of COVID-19 on state and local budgets. What emerged from these conversations were trends in education that have been amplified by a global pandemic and are likely to have impacts far beyond this school year.

Theme 1: Decreased Enrollment Affects Funding

Fewer students enrolling in schools and decreases in attendance means funding cuts for schools at a time when they need it the most.

According to former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who spoke with The New York Times education reporter Erica Green during the session K-12 Education in 2021: Looking Ahead to the Next Administration, between 2 and 3 million children never made the transition to virtual school. School funding depends upon per-pupil allocation. When you have more students, you get more funding.

This theme continued during Marguerite Roza’s session, The Impact of COVID-19 on State and Local Education Budgets. Roza, director of Edunomics Lab and research associate professor at Georgetown University, put it bluntly: If you lose students, you’ll lose money.

“It’s a massive impact,” said Roza. “Normally, we think if a district loses .5 percent to 1 percent of enrollment, it sends schools into financial chaos. Right now, we have 2 percent to 6 percent enrollment loss. It’ll affect schools not just now but likely for the next five years. Individual schools are most equipped to address the issue by reaching out to families.”

Children not showing up to virtual schooling is just a symptom of something else going on, says Duncan. Some students are working. Young students just didn’t get enrolled in school. Other students have disengaged and have just lost interest.

When students drop out, you get less funding. But it’s never about the money, said Duncan. It’s about trying to give kids a chance in life, and if you’re total enrollment is going down, you’re going to get less funding in a time when resources are already too scarce. Schools need to get kids back into schools.

“You can always get students back,” said Duncan. “People who are lost can be found. It’s not a permanent situation. It’s literally knocking on doors, and sitting down on porch steps and finding out what’s going on.”

Theme 2: Pandemic Is Hitting Certain Populations Harder than Others

COVID has hit every community but it has hit the Black community especially hard—including students and teachers of color. The pandemic isn’t the only thing to affect people of color over the past year, who have also been affected by heightened levels of racial injustice.

“Social distancing is a new term, but it isn’t a new concept,” said Duncan. “Marginalized communities have been social-distanced. How do we create opportunities for kids in communities that were never given opportunities? The pandemic has forced us to face issues that we used to sweep under the rug. The biggest lesson for me, whether it’s around racism, democracy, or voter suppression is that there is no final victory. We have to continue to fight for them and not ever take them for granted. The moment we take it for granted is the moment we learn how fragile it is.”

Theme 3: Assessments Need to Happen in Some Form

Most students are falling behind because of remote learning during a pandemic. To figure out where students are both academically and social-emotionally, educators can’t just guess at it or go off of intuition, says Duncan, who recommends assessing students now and again in the fall.

Looking toward the summer months, it’s more important than ever to think about students in the whole child aspect. What does it look like to support students through the summer months when school’s out of session?

“We worry about the academic side, but I honestly worry more about the social-emotional part,” said Duncan. “We have to be more creative than we’ve ever been for the summer months. Telling kids we’re done with you for the summer isn’t going to work.”

Theme 4: This Is an Opportunity to Rethink Education

The pandemic is shining a bright spotlight onto issues that have affected education for years. Instead of trying to revert back to the way education was pre-COVID-19, we should look at this as an opportunity to identify what wasn’t working before and find solutions moving forward, said Duncan.

“We know we don’t train teachers enough,” says Duncan. “We know we don’t pay them enough. So let’s not try to revert back to what was normal and instead use this tough time to leapfrog and make changes. But that’s going to take resources and courage to have a commitment to take us to a better place in the not too distant future.”

It’s not just about teachers either. Making processes easier for families is important, too. Green is seeing this happening already in her daughter’s school. At the Title I school, administrators realized that parent engagement went up significantly since switching their processes to virtual. They plan to continue to offer Zoom parent-teacher conferences remotely because 100 percent of families took part.

Theme 5: There’s No Financial Playbook for Recovering From a Pandemic

Schools have never been hit with the specific problems they’re dealing with at any other point in history. There’s no financial playbook for this moment, said Roza.

When districts have to make cuts, there are four stages, according to Roza:

  • Freeze: This usually means a hiring freeze, less travel, offers of early retirement, and maintenance postponements, but it doesn’t really save money.
  • Trim From the Top: This means trimming contracts, eliminate professional development, and cutting central administrative positions, but also doesn’t save much money.
  • Negotiate: This is where districts go to make hard cuts to get to 2-3 percent savings. It hits the most important piece in education: labor. Think altering benefits, reducing salaries, and cutting down school days.
  • If those three aren’t successful in saving money, it goes to labor reduction; This means larger layoffs of elective staff, librarians, academic coaches, and even core teachers.

Though this situation is new, Roza highlighted lessons learned from the Great Recession in 2008. The federal money ended after the recession was over, but school districts didn’t adjust their practices, she said. When the federal money ended, districts then needed to make cuts to live on the new state and local revenue stream. Pace yourself with the funding, cautioned Roza.

She offered this insight: If you hire a bunch of new people, for example, you will have to lay them off in the future. Use stipends to pay current staff or hire people on a temporary basis so they know it’s temporary. If you open a summer school, and no one comes, the money is lost. Make sure you know what your community needs and wants and cater to that with funding available to you. 

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