HARRISBURG — School districts in Pennsylvania are getting almost $775 million in federal stimulus funding and the state is providing the same amount of basic school funding it provided last year.
Education advocates worry it’s not going to be enough and that poorer school districts and the students who attend them will suffer long-term because of it.
The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) has estimated that school districts across the state stand to lose $1 billion in local revenue due to the pandemic, meaning that the stimulus funding won’t even get them back to even, let alone provide additional funding to cover the increased cost of preparing to conduct school in a pandemic.
The projected lost local revenue from the pandemic economic crisis is greater than the expected federal stimulus already approved for 27 of 64 school districts in 11 counties — Cambria, Crawford, Lawrence, Mercer, Montour, Northumberland, Somerset, Snyder, Union, Venango and Warren, based on PASBO’s most conservative estimate for how much district stands to lose in local tax revenue.
The stimulus funding is also designated for costs directly related to purchasing equipment to respond to the epidemic. It doesn’t provide help to add teachers or nurses or aides or social workers or bus drivers, all of whom districts could use to help reduce class sizes to promote social distancing and otherwise manage the challenges of trying to prevent coronavirus from entering schools and spreading once it gets there.
“If students go back to buildings this fall, poor children who are educated in underfunded school districts will have a very different experience in school this fall than students in wealthy districts. This is not different than pre-COVID, but the gaps in their experiences will be even wider now,” said Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a school-funding advocacy group.
The implications of the challenges facing poorer districts are wide-ranging, said Margie Wakelin, an attorney with the Education Law Center based in Philadelphia.
Poor districts will struggle to limit class sizes which means students may have to wear masks in class in poorer districts while their peers in wealthier districts get to remove their face coverings while sitting at their desks.
“It’s not just masks and student-teacher ratios,” she said.
Many districts will be looking to take steps to do simple things like opening windows to improve ventilation. Some schools have classrooms with windows that don’t open, she said.
As districts look to lean on hybrid-strategies that depend on students studying at home part-time, that will only make it harder for children in poorer families to keep up with their peers, Wakelin said.
“Remote learning has a disproportionate impact on students” from poorer families, she said. Those students are more likely to have problems connecting online. Their parents may be more likely to have jobs that don’t allow them to telework meaning students will be left alone at home.
“We really fear for how these kids' long-term education development is going to be impacted,” Wakelin said.
The concerns about remote learning are significant, particularly if school districts use online learning as an escape hatch to avoid having to make more aggressive moves to make schools safe, she said. There is ample research demonstrating that students will fare better in school than if they are expected to study at home online.
The financial challenges will be felt across the state, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said.
In some districts, if schools are forced to tell students to study at home part or all of the time, there will be real issues trying to overcome “the digital divide” in which students from poorer families or those who live in rural areas don’t have access to fast internet speed.
Even in districts where that’s not a problem, other increased costs for busing students could be a real challenge, he said.
School districts won’t know how bad their financial shape is going to be until property tax payments start rolling in, said Hannah Barrick, PASBO assistant executive director.
Property tax bills are paid in the fall and account for about three-quarters of school districts’ local revenue.
Districts struggling to deal with reduced revenue will have difficult decisions to make while adjusting to try to reopen.
Barrick said one of the challenges that districts face is the uncertainty of making decisions about what type of equipment to buy when it’s unclear exactly how bad the epidemic is going to be when they are trying to hold classes.
“They are going to have to cut things they think they don’t need,” Barrick said. “It’s going to be a trade-off.”
More federal help?
The state passed an interim five-month budget. While most agencies only got five months of funding, schools were provided their full 12 months so local officials would know what the state was going to provide as they did their budget, said Barrick.
As a result, there is very little reason to believe that lawmakers will make any push to provide additional funding for schools when they revisit the budget later this year, she said.
Instead, any additional funding is more likely to come from the federal government, Barrick said.
Chris Lillenthal, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the teachers union also believes that the federal government is going to need to provide more funding so schools can make the adjustments needed to keep everyone safe.
Wakelin said that the federal stimulus funding is needed, but the Education Law Center believes the state should consider providing additional help to schools too.
“We are advocating for more federal stimulus funding,” she said. “In addition, we're advocating that additional K-12 funding be allocated based on an evidence-based, need-based process, such as the Basic Education Funding formula.”