Commentary, COVID-19, Education

How the COVID-19 packages compare for public schools

Lawmakers have returned to Raleigh this week, aiming to pass a series of bills to help the state manage through the COVID-19 crisis. To date, the House, Senate, and Governor have all released plans to distribute funding received from federal relief bills and to modify state regulations. The plans are a reflection of the crisis we face: massive and complex.

One of the primary challenges for state lawmakers is how to mitigate the harm caused by the closure of public schools. School closures have exacerbated existing inequalities in our school system. Lawmakers must figure out how best to minimize the harm caused by fewer instructional days, diminished instructional quality and widespread trauma.

The table below summarizes the major differences between the competing plans released by the Senate, the House, the Governor, and the State Board of Education.


1 S704, Edition 1
2 H1035 Edition 1 and H1038 Edition 2
3 Recommended money and provisions, as found here and here
4 As presented at 4/23 SBE meeting here
5 Funding from child nutrition may be used to provide incentive pay for school nutrition and transportation staff involved in the preparation and distribution of meals and food packages
6 Governor’s package includes $243 million in public school funding to address the needs outlined in the State Board request, but does not specify dollar amounts for specific programs

Money Items
As the table shows, none of the plans fully fund every request made by the SBE, but the Governor’s plan comes the closest. While it omits the SBE’s request to hire additional support personnel to address students’ physical and mental health needs upon returning to school, the Governor also states that it remains his intention to provide that funding at a future date with state money.

The House plan also funds the majority of the SBE’s request, though not always to the dollar amount.

As is frequently the case, the Senate’s plan is the most miserly, providing funding only for child nutrition and a summer bridge program.

Provisions
The plans all include the technical changes necessitated by the elimination of school testing for this year. In other policy areas, however, the plans differ in the extent to which they help schools navigate the challenges they will face over the coming months.

Researchers are estimating substantial learning loss. One way schools might mitigate the “COVID slide” would be starting their school year earlier than currently allowed. Under current law, schools can’t start earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26. The House and Senate plans move the allowable starting date up to Aug. 17. In contrast, the Governor’s plan eschews arbitrary starting dates, allowing school districts to establish calendars that best address their students’ needs.

Spending flexibility is another tool that can help districts navigate an uncertain future. Lawmakers have enacted numerous restrictions in recent years limiting schools’ budgetary flexibility. The Senate and Governor’s plans fail to provide districts with new spending flexibility. The House plan takes the meager step of lifting restrictions on funds for driver’s education and teacher assistants (representing just 4% of schools’ state funding). A smarter approach would be to maximize spending flexibility as the General Assembly did during the Great Recession.

The House and Senate plans both create onerous new reporting requirements. These requirements will force central offices — already stretched to the breaking point by legislative budget cuts — to prioritize compiling paperwork for legislators instead of finding innovative ways to meet the needs of their students. For example, it’s unclear how students benefit from the Senate requirement that schools report to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee with a comprehensive catalog of every online and offline remote instruction resource used by schools.

Finally, lawmakers should avoid unfunded mandates. The Senate plan creates new school responsibilities without providing commensurate increases in funding. For example, providing technology support for all students experiencing technical difficulties and adding five instructional days will create new costs for districts without additional funding.

How to improve these plans
Both the Governor and House plans offer reasonable starting points for addressing immediate needs. In the coming days, these plans could be improved in several ways:

  • Maximizing school spending flexibility to the extent allowable under federal law
  • Distributing funding in accordance with student need
  • Removing arbitrary school calendar restrictions
  • Eliminating any reporting requirements unnecessary to comply with federal law
  • Improving budgetary stability by holding districts harmless for enrollment decreases in the next school year
  • Avoiding any unfunded mandates

It is important to remember that these plans are focused on immediate concerns that can be addressed with federal funding. The unprecedented challenges faced by our students will require additional action — and state funding — to avoid backsliding. Substantially more will be required to deliver the type of education our students are owed.

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