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Commentary By Ray Domanico

The Path Ahead for K-12 Education

Economics, Education Pre K-12

Many, if not most, schools across the country will not reopen before the normal end of the school year in June. To reopen successfully this fall, major policy decisions must be made in the coming three and a half months. Because schools are most families’ main source of childcare, this will be critical to restarting the economy. Funding will occupy much of the debate, but there is a growing awareness that the public health needs, laid bare by the Covid-19 crisis, will require serious rethinking of the fundamental organization of the school day and school year. So will the relationships between human resources and technology and between school and home. These challenges will be great.

The U.S. Department of Education has just made $13.2 billion available to state and local education agencies on top of an earlier $3 billion infusion of emergency aid for education at all levels, including colleges and universities. That will be only a small down payment on the financial needs of schools and districts. The economic losses associated with the shutdown will constitute a major shock to the state and local taxes and other revenue streams that have supported public education. New York City’s Independent Budget Office has estimated that the city’s tax revenue will fall almost $10 billion below previous expectations in the next 15 months. The city’s school system, the nation’s largest, comprises about a third of the city’s budget, so a large amount of those losses will affect education. The second-biggest funding source for the school system’s budget, state aid, contributes close to $10 billion, but Governor Cuomo has already indicated that he may need to slash this aid in half unless the federal government backstops the state’s budget against its own revenue losses. If these losses are not offset, the city’s school system could be looking at a budget reduction in the 18-25% range, or $5 billion to $7 billion; that’s for one school district educating a little less than 2 percent of the nation’s total enrollment in public and charter schools.  

No amount of belt tightening in school districts will be able to negate the losses in state and local revenue in the next few budget years, and pressure will mount for greater federal investment. It is also critical that schools in all sectors — district, charter, and private/religious — be included in the aid packages. As bad as the revenue picture for public schools seems, for many private schools, Covid-19 may be the death knell. Well-financed prep schools may have the resources to survive, but even they will face fund-raising challenges. On the other hand, lower-cost religious schools, which serve 78 percent of the 4.8 million students enrolled in private school in the country, typically do not have endowments and operate on a year-to-year basis. We can expect that many private and religious schools serving poor, working-class, and middle-class students may see enrollment declines in the fall as families cope with the costs of lost work. If these schools are forced to close their doors, surrounding public school districts would then face the additional cost of absorbing the displaced private school students. That would make a bad situation worse and do long-term damage to the important diversity of our school offerings.

Writing checks seems to be the easy part. Some of these funds will address the need to augment the school day for those groups of students who regressed in the last third of the current school year. Schools that had the technology and systems in place to support effective remote learning avoided some of these losses, but there is no evidence that’s been the case for all students at all schools. There will be learning losses that need to be addressed for all but the more advanced and motivated students. These needs will be concentrated in high schools and in the grades just prior to high school. Younger students will have many years to make up for lost time, but students approaching the end of high school do not have that much time. The same is true for students in middle school. They need to be fully prepared to enter high school in the next two to three years. 

Structural change in schools may be required, which also costs money and resources. Scientific understanding of the impact of this virus on children and the ability of children to infect adults is still evolving. Until reliable answers are found, fear of the uncertainty will dominate the reaction of parents, teachers, and school officials. It is likely that the new school year will open with some aggressive forms of social distancing in place within schools. These practices may become permanent or at least last for years. Schools around the world have begun to consider what social distancing might look like in practice. There are various ways to reduce the number of children within a school building on any given day, week, or month. Thus, schools could be open and in session five days per week, but an individual child might attend only three days and learn remotely the other two. The same approach could be applied to alternate weeks of in-school attendance and remote learning. In the most extreme application, schools would operate twelve months a year with rotating vacation months replacing the normal summer vacation. These approaches would cost money as well, but there could well be efficiencies inherent in a well-planned remote-learning program, whereby the teachers leading the lessons would be serving a larger number of students.

These and other forms of reconfiguring time and location will rely heavily on technology. Many schools had to create remote-learning programs on the fly this spring. Moving forward, technology needs to be a daily partner in every classroom and needs to be able to substitute for in-person instruction when the need arises. This will require a tremendous amount of training and preparation for educators. It will also require joint efforts between government and industry on a large scale to create the systems that will finally deliver on the promise of technology in education on a large scale. Just yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education announced a small grant program of $180 million to support the rethinking of K-12 education; the needs will be much greater than that.

Finally, this spring has been an eye-opener to many parents and educators alike. Parents learned how to be teachers, and teachers discovered the challenges that many families have had facilitating remote learning. These experiences will color the nature of the relationships between home and school. If formal schooling is reconstrued as a partnership between home and school, as it always should have been, the dynamic between the two must change. The parent-teacher conferences of ten minutes, two or three times per year, will not do. Communications between educators and families will need to be routine, frequent, relational, and clear.

All these things and more will be necessary. Local ingenuity and diversity across states need to be incorporated into their design and implementation, but if the federal government is going to be writing big checks, it needs to incentivize fundamental change in schools to prepare for future challenges.

Ray Domanico is a senior fellow and director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute

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