Like the rest of the nation, the commonwealth is in the midst of a public health crisis that is not only affecting our way of life in unprecedented ways, it is decimating our economy to an extent not seen since the Great Depression.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also disrupting our children’s education, closing district and charter public schools for an extended period of time and forcing sudden and fundamental changes in how nearly one million children across the state are learning.
Our children’s education - and their futures - cannot become collateral damage of the virus. The next federal stimulus package needs to include funding for interventions that would mitigate the long-term impact that nearly six months of disrupted and lost learning time (mid-March to September) will have on opportunities our children will be afforded once the economy is “reopened.”
Education resources must meet the needs of all public school children, but state and federal funding play larger roles in supporting the education of low-income children - urban, suburban and rural - as well as children with special needs and English learners. Low-income families of color are already being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus health and economic impacts, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Additional research by NWEA, a nonprofit education assessment and research organization, suggests that high needs children will suffer inequitable learning losses as a result of the cumulative effect of the “COVID-19 Slide” and summer break. NWEA estimates that students are likely to retain only 70 percent of what they learned this year in English and 50 percent in math. By this September, children in some grades could lose an entire year.
Before the pandemic, the Legislature and the governor sought to address long-standing inequities when they passed a law in late 2019 that would increase public education funding by billions of dollars and provide targeted funds for communities to address the specific needs of low-income, high need students. And then the roof caved in.
State tax collections are expected to drop 20 percent as unemployment soars to 15 percent, creating an estimated $4 billion to $6 billion shortfall. This will not only jeopardize the new funding meant to address decades-long inequities, but will also create further financial stress on all our schools and districts at a time when the COVID-19 Slide will likely worsen those historic inequities.
While the U.S. government’s “Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act,’’ or CARES Act, will provide $200 million for Massachusetts schools, the stimulus package does not address the fundamental, long-term crisis facing state and local government budgets -- it does not do enough.
When it returns from recess, Congress is likely to take up another stimulus package to provide more resources to those impacted by this pandemic. It is critical that Congress makes relief for state and municipal budgets an important priority, and that there is additional, dedicated funding to support all our students, but most importantly those disadvantaged students in our K-12 public schools and districts. We support the National Governors Association’s call for $500 billion to help offset revenue shortfalls, as well as the national School Superintendents Association and other education groups ask for $200 billion for public schools.
Teachers across the state are doing heroic work to deliver online instruction to keep students on track, but nothing can replace classroom instruction. At the state level, we all should be planning how to address the “COVID-19 + Summer Slide” this fall. We can ill afford to have a loss of resources at a time when we will need to redouble our efforts to deal with the loss of learning.
Our country’s economic strength depends heavily on the health and quality of its schools. Educational inequities are real and, as a result of the pandemic, are growing. We cannot afford to allow our students to fall even further behind. Adequate and equitable funding of district and charter public schools will hasten our recovery and maintain our economic strength into the future.
Now it’s more important than ever that Congress addresses the barriers to an equal and quality education for all students and dedicates significant funding to educate the students who face the harshest challenges.
Tom Scott is the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. Tim Nicolette is the executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.