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Public schools face funding ‘death spiral’ as enrollments decline

SACRAMENTO – In Texas, public schools in Austin could lay off 200 people and fail to close the financial hole created by the coronavirus. Governor Jay Inslee of Washington has proposed two new taxes to help pay for catching up with students who have fallen behind in distance learning. And in Los Angeles, the costs of virus tests, laptops and free meals for families have totaled more than $ 400 million.

Even with a promised lifeline of billions of federal dollars, public schools in many parts of the country are heading towards a financial cliff, as the coronavirus pushes up education costs as tax revenues and enrollments increase. students continue to decline.

Schools can expect around $ 54 billion from the coronavirus stimulus package approved by Congress late Monday night, nearly four times what kindergarten to grade 12 education received in a relief program Of March. The deal also includes $ 7 billion to expand broadband access for students who have difficulty connecting, and continued funding for school lunch programs.

But school officials say that’s not enough to make up for the crushing losses state and local budgets have suffered during the pandemic, or the costs of distance learning and attempts to bring back the children. students in classrooms. Supporters of public education estimate that schools have lost nearly $ 200 billion so far.

“We’re going to need a lot more investment both in the short term, to deal with Covid, and in the long term,” said Chip Slaven, a lobbyist for the National School Boards Association.

The pandemic has already forced schools across the country to lay off non-union employees, instead spending the money on distance learning technology, building upgrades, testing and monitoring programs and other related expenses. to coronaviruses. Education was among the hardest-hit sectors of the economy, according to an analysis by Pew Charitable Trusts, with employment down 8.8% in October from a year earlier and lower than any other time in the past two decades – a loss of millions of jobs.

The budget crisis is looming at a time when families who were fed up with education during the pandemic era have increasingly turned to private and charter schools or have chosen to educate their children in House. This is potentially a major drain on public school budgets, as most states base school funding at least in part on enrollment numbers.

The school boards association has estimated that up to three million students – or about 6 percent of the public school population – are not in class right now, and that number could increase.

At the same time, job losses from a pandemic, business closures and depreciation in property values ​​are just starting to show up in tax revenues and state and local revenue pipelines, even as most states begin to draft their budget plans for adoption by the end of the fiscal year in June.

Although the relief package adopted on Monday includes direct aid to education, it does not provide money to state and local governments to help offset budget losses linked to Covid, which could prevent them from helping further schools. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, insisted on ruling out such aid, saying it would be a bailout for financially irresponsible states.

At public schools in Vancouver, a district of about 23,000 students in southwest Washington, enrollment is down 4% so far this year, contributing to a potential shortfall of 21 millions of dollars without state or federal assistance. As schools were primarily providing virtual classes this fall, the district laid off more than 600 people, including classroom assistants, clerks, secretaries, bus drivers and security guards, to save money. silver.

Most states have so far been successful in maintaining funding for schools during the pandemic, but it’s unclear how long that may last, said David Adkins, executive director and chief executive of the council. state governments, which follows state policy at the national level. It will be especially difficult if registrations do not bounce back.

“We will have to see how many of these people return home once normalcy can be achieved,” Adkins said. But if the pandemic accelerates the exodus of affluent families from the public school system, he expressed fears that the loss of enrollment and political support could trigger a “death spiral,” further weakening public schools at a time when students poor and disadvantaged are already lagging behind.

For the most part, schools have been financially protected from the pandemic. Property taxes, which are the primary source of funding for many districts, tend to remain stable until a recession is deep enough to decrease home sales and property tax collection. And many state governments had healthy reserves when the pandemic hit, having squandered money in anticipation of a possible economic recession.

Some states have adopted policies financially protecting schools from enrollment drops related to the pandemic. In Sacramento, California lawmakers pledged to use the number of students before the pandemic to calculate funding for schools through the 2021-2022 school year, to give districts the resources they need to make schools safe and to avoid layoffs in communities where education is often a major employer.

But California entered the fiscal year with a projected surplus of nearly $ 6 billion. Grace periods were more limited in other states. Texas, for example, made its “keep it harmless” policy conditional on schools having the opportunity to attend classes in person and limited it, at first, to part of the semester of school. fall, before extending it to the end of the calendar year.

Now that the semester is almost over, enrollment is down in nearly every district in Texas, in large part because a significant number of parents have withheld kindergarten and kindergarten students. As a result, school funding is poised to suffer.

On December 14, nearly two dozen school principals and education advocates in Texas wrote to Governor Greg Abbott, asking him to at least maintain current education funding. Teachers and school staff “put their lives on the line” this year, the letter said, and not firing them is “the least we can do.”

Enrollments fell 4% in Dallas in October, meaning the district could lose $ 20 million if the governor does not extend the safety policy. In Fort Worth, where registrations have fallen more than 6%, the potential loss on Jan. 1 could reach $ 50 million, the superintendent said. And Austin schools stand to lose up to $ 25 million, which Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said would lead to a thinning of the ranks of teachers.

“We are going to affect the quality of the education given to our students at some point next year when we know that we are going to have to make up for so many losses,” she said.

The decline in enrollment is just as perilous across the country. A 5% drop in student numbers could mean $ 15 million in cuts for schools in Tucson, Ariz., While Massachusetts recently released enrollment figures showing tens of thousands of families had passed through. at private schools with in-person lessons or had withheld kindergarten children, subtract funds from public schools.

In Los Angeles, not only has public school enrollment declined by some 12,000 students – mostly as families leave to find work or hold kindergarten children – the district has also raised some $ 400 million in costs. pandemic, said Austin Beutner, the superintendent, including for Covid-19 testing and free take-out meals for students and adults.

He described the schools as facing a “wall of need”.

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has vowed to reopen most schools across the country within the first 100 days of his term in office, a promise that will likely not be fulfilled without more federal spending, though it is unclear whether he will be able to push more humanitarian aid through Congress if the Senate remains under Republican control.

But some states have already taken matters into their own hands. Governor Inslee has proposed taxing capital gains and health insurers in Washington to help generate income to offset the dire impact of the pandemic there, including $ 400 million to combat learning loss and inequalities in access to education. And the budget proposed by Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia last week would protect public school funding despite a drop in enrollment of more than 45,000 students.

In a recent editorial in the Washington Post, Mr. Beutner in Los Angeles and officials from the country’s other two largest public school systems, New York and Chicago, called for a “Marshall Plan” that would spend $ 125 billion. dollars federal funding to districts for Covid screening, mental health care and remedial summer education as schools emerge from the pandemic.

The cost, they note, “is less than 20% of the total amount allocated to the paycheck protection program and about double the amount given to airlines.”

Shawn Hubler reported from Sacramento, Kate Taylor from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Amelia Nierenberg from New York.

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