Funding Schools in a Pandemic: Where to Start

Funding Schools in a Pandemic: Where to Start

Among the many unknowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing seems certain: The virus will have a tremendous impact on school funding for at least the next year, if not longer.

Lauren Camera of U.S. News and World Report recently outlined the looming financial crisis from the point of view of the country's school administrators, who are reportedly “bracing for 15% to 25% cuts in overall revenues going into next school year.” In response to such drastic declines in funding, large school districts will likely find themselves forced to decrease teacher numbers, lay off some non-teaching members of staff, and reduce programming just as buildings begin to reopen and a “new normal” sets in for students, teachers, and school communities.

Moreover, Camera noted, district leaders are warning that many students will be “significantly behind academically” after months of hit-or-miss remote learning. Given that the pre-existing problem of inequity in education is likely to have been exacerbated by coronavirus-related school closures, an even greater need for resources—financial and otherwise—should be anticipated.

Let’s take a look at how education funding in response to the COVID-19 crisis is shaping up.


The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress in April allocated $13.5 billion in emergency funding for K–12 institutions in the United States, with a smaller amount set aside for colleges and universities.

In many contexts, a $13.5 billion figure sounds massive. However, according to Georgetown University economics scholar Nora Gordon, it is barely enough for states to cover immediate needs such as acquiring digital learning devices and creating plans that prioritize public health.

“This money is for the short-term COVID-19 response,” Gordon told Education Week columnist Rick Hess. “It's not for the long haul ahead, where we'll need to make up for lost state and local revenue from the recession—and support the higher costs schools are going to face in getting students caught up.”

School leaders request additional funding

A nationwide network of superintendents affiliated with the Council on Great City Schools seems to share Gordon's concerns, based on a recent letter pleading for more financial support from government officials.

“Dark clouds are forming on the educational horizon,” the council's letter warned, painting a picture of district leaders staring anxiously over a fiscal cliff as problems pile up behind them. 

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Citing the precedent set by Congress during the 2008 recession, when schools were provided with $100 billion in extra funding to help them stay afloat, the council urged the federal government to prioritize educational spending at this time of crisis. According to the letter, such a financial infusion would help school systems do the following:

  • Provide summer school and extended learning opportunities when school resumes

  • Continue to address the digital divide and other educational inequities compounded by school closures

  • Avoid layoffs and hire additional staff as necessary

  • Stabilize public education as an investment in America’s future

Secretary DeVos offers grants

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is known for being a longtime supporter of school choice and other alternative instructional models, including homeschooling and the use of public education dollars for private school tuition. Now, she has been authorized by the CARES Act to administer an additional $181 million in K–12 school funding to state departments that participate in a competitive grant process, provided the money goes toward “reimagining” education. Although the details have not yet been finalized, observers note that one goal of the grants appears to be putting “more money in the hands of families and not traditional public school systems,” according to Andrew Ujifusa of Education Week.

In addition, nearly $130 million in grant funding has been set aside for programming that targets workforce preparation, including potential job training.

Preparing for the unknown

Certainly, the available financial assistance seems to be being put to good use, but the question of sufficiency remains. In an April blog post, Michael Griffith of the Learning Policy Institute echoed the concerns of observers such as Gordon regarding the inadequate funding provided by the CARES Act.

While Griffith acknowledged that the emergency funding allocated by Congress is a good start, he contended that the amount will simply not be enough to truly help schools moving forward. Indeed, many states are rapidly adjusting their budget forecasts as officials scramble to plan for a sudden drop in tax revenue. Although funding for local school systems will certainly be impacted, the host of unknowns make it tough to do anything more than worry, wait, and wonder just how much revenue will be lost and how much might be recouped through additional federal aid.

In response to this uncertainty, Griffith developed an interactive tool to take some of the guesswork out of estimating how much state funding will have to be cut after an injection of money from the CARES Act.

The tool's predictions are sobering, to say the least. Rather than giving in to despair, Griffith advised state and district leaders to focus on three key priorities: pushing for more federal dollars, insisting on protecting the most vulnerable students, and increasing flexibility of use for available resources.

In the midst of a global pandemic, clear strategizing and collaboration may not only yield more resources, but a bit of comfort as well.

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