Congress Needs To Ensure Educational Equity in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic

Volunteers and teachers in Boston deliver homework to students as schools shut down amid the COVID-19 outbreak, March 2020.

This column contains a correction.

The $2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress last week includes critically needed funding that will help America’s students, from preschool through postsecondary education, as the United States reckons with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including shuttered schools from coast to coast and a potentially severe recession. Unfortunately, the roughly $43 billion targeted for early childhood education, K-12, and higher education will only make a dent in addressing the long-term crisis for education funding.

Congress has a great deal more work to do to ensure that all children and students, from cradle to career, are equitably supported. To that end, federal lawmakers should immediately begin work on a fourth stimulus package that includes significant funding for education stabilization, even as it considers additional long-term educational needs.

Access to quality educational opportunities are deeply inequitable in this country. Now, this unprecedented new epoch risks further widening the gap, placing children and students from families with low incomes as well as children and students of color at an even greater disadvantage. States about to face grave budget pressures from this pandemic will be unable to solve these challenges without additional federal support. Minimizing and overcoming the damage posed to millions of students by fallout from the novel coronavirus is a task that will have vast implications for the next generation and American prosperity for decades to come.

The significant education-related provisions in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act include:

  • $3.5 billion for the Child Care Development Block Grant to support access to early childhood education for essential workers.
  • $750 million for Head Start, including up to $500 million for supplemental summer programs.
  • $8.8 billion for child nutrition programs, so that students can receive meals while schools are closed.
  • $3 billion for a Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund providing emergency support to child care, early childhood, and K-12 systems as well as institutions of higher education significantly affected by the coronavirus.
  • $13 billion for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, which is distributed through states to school systems based on relative shares of Title I aid. These funds can be used for a range of educational purposes that are already authorized under current federal programs. Funds can also be used for a variety of other purposes, including closing access gaps to technology; providing assistive technology and adaptive equipment for students with disabilities; meeting the needs of English learners, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youth; providing mental health services; and deep-cleaning schools as they prepare to reopen.
  • $14 billion for a higher education stabilization fund distributed to institutions.* 90 percent of these dollars will be allocated based on a formula that recognizes the greater needs of colleges serving low-income students. Of the funding dedicated to that formula, three-quarters will be distributed based on the percentage of Pell Grant recipients, and the remaining quarter will be distributed based on enrollment of non-Pell students. The formula excludes students enrolled exclusively online from the calculation, which the Center for American Progress estimates will result in half a billion more to public colleges compared with earlier versions of legislation. Half of money going to an institution must be passed through to students as emergency grant aid. Minority-serving institutions may use prior awards, in addition to the higher education emergency relief funds, to respond to the pandemic.
  • Temporary relief to borrowers with direct loans and Federal Family Education Loans owned by the U.S. Department of Education—by suspending federal student loan payments for six months, eliminating interest accrual, ensuring that borrowers are still on track toward loan forgiveness, and halting involuntary collections on defaulted borrowers.

While these are all good and prudent first steps, much more must be done going forward in the immediate, medium, and long term in order to meet the significant COVID-19-related challenges facing early education, K-12 schools, and higher education. The effects of school closures, financial insecurity, and the coronavirus itself will not be felt evenly across communities, and Congress will need to prioritize equity as it considers additional education recovery investments.

Next steps to help students cope with this crisis

Immediate- and short-term policies

Early education and K-12

States and school systems have launched herculean efforts in short order to respond to the immediate challenges of the novel coronavirus. They have worked to provide child care to health workers and first responders, sought waivers to design new meal program strategies to distribute food when schools are closed, deployed creative solutions such as using buses as Wi-Fi access points in neighborhoods where families may lack broadband connectivity, developed virtual pre-K resources, and worked through the challenges to provide services and supports to students with disabilities when schools are closed.

But prolonged closures this spring, and possible closures through summer programs and into the fall, will place additional demands on education systems in the immediate, medium, and long term.

Immediately, schools will need to invest time and resources to close gaps in access to devices and broadband connectivity, provide professional development to teachers on how to plan for and support students learning remotely, provide services and supports to English learners and students with disabilities, and address the social and emotional needs of children directly affected by COVID-19. In addition, K-12 school systems are confronting an array of challenges related to state assessments and accountability. States are facing the immediate decision of whether or not to continue their annual testing programs in reading, math, and science. Many states have already made the prudent decision to cancel those assessments.

The immediate challenges provide opportunities for Congress to take the following actions to support early and K-12 education

Congress must administer additional emergency funding targeted to school systems in order to meet the immediate needs of all students, including those in state preschool programs. Additional funding should also be directed to learning about the effect of sudden school closures on students—for example, investing in research that looks at learning loss and trauma. In addition, Congress should oversee the recently announced waiver process allowing states to cancel testing in order to ensure that it is indeed streamlined and simple to request, and not indiscriminately broad. Finally, Congress should oversee the Department of Education’s work monitoring the delivery of educational services to students, ensuring that they comply with federal requirements to provide continuity in learning and any required services.

Higher education

While the stimulus bill addresses the emergency needs of currently enrolled college students and defaulted borrowers and suspends payments on federally held student loans, more must be done to protect student loan borrowers, who comprise one-sixth of the U.S. population older than 18. This represents 43 million adult Americans who owe a total of more than $1.5 trillion in federal student loans, not to mention private debt.

What Congress should do immediately and in the short term for student loan borrowers

The stimulus neglects 1.9 million borrowers with Perkins loans and 7.9 million borrowers with commercially held Federal Family Education Loans. Therefore, Congress should include these borrowers in future legislation or, at minimum, allow for the consolidation of direct loans and commercially held Federal Family Education Loans in a way that does not restart the clock on loan forgiveness programs or cause interest to capitalize. Congress should ensure that borrowers receiving temporary relief through suspended payments are not subject to capitalization on interest when they return to regular payment. It should also ensure that halting collections on defaulted loans applies to these borrowers. Until Congress acts, the secretary of education could place borrowers benefiting from the CARES Act in a status that would not trigger interest capitalization so that they are not footing a large bill in September.

Looking ahead to squeezed state budgets

Medium-term policies

Even with the passage of the stimulus package, the massive surge in unemployment claims and demands for increased health care spending related to the coronavirus will put extreme downward pressure on state funding available for pre-K, K-12, and higher education. Just to maintain service levels, Congress must prepare for long-term demands of a recession on state budgets and, therefore, on education funding. Congress must also absorb the lessons of the Great Recession, when federal stimulus measures delayed but did not forestall cuts that continue to harm students more than a decade later. While some of those cuts may have been difficult to avoid during the recession, a number of states reduced income tax rates and prolonged the squeeze on education funding.

It is also critical that future stimulus legislation provides dedicated funding and maintenance-of-effort provisions specifically to each part of the education system, so that funding is not directed to one part at the expense of another.

Early education

The 2008 recession led to significant decreases in budgets for state pre-K programs. Prior to 2008, state pre-K funding had been increasing each year. However, from 2010 through 2013, state spending declined by as much as $548 million per year. When funding fell, so did enrollment and funding per child, meaning more children and families missed out on the educational and financial benefits of high-quality preschool. With most state pre-K programs targeted to children from low-income families, this decline fell primarily on the children who most benefit from the additional support provided by a year of preschool prior to entering kindergarten. While several states have been investing in early learning programs in recent years, past recessions indicate that these programs are likely at risk due to state budget shortfalls, making it more important than ever for the federal government to provide funding to support access to high-quality early education.

K-12

Funding for K-12 education was also greatly affected by the 2008 recession. In the 2017 school year, according to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, inflation-adjusted state and local funding for K-12 education in seven states was still down more than 10 percent compared with prerecession levels. The national average of state and local funding per pupil finally recovered by 2017, but that masks the fact that the recovery was driven by increases in locally derived revenue large enough to offset a small decline in state funding. This is particularly problematic given that school districts with higher poverty levels tend to be more reliant on state funding to meet the needs of their students—and that, nationwide, predominantly white districts receive approximately $23 billion more than predominantly nonwhite districts. These cuts and the inequitable distribution of funding they exacerbated are particularly concerning given that researchers have found that funding cuts have negative impacts on assessment scores and college-going rates.

Higher education

The last recession led to significant cuts to higher education funding as state budgets were stretched thin. That was despite a $48.6 billion state stabilization fund in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that included maintenance-of-effort provisions. States dedicated just $8.3 billion for higher education—$2 billion more than the CARES Act provides after accounting for funds dedicated to emergency grant aid. Of 48 states that participated in the fund, 23 still ended up cutting higher education funding. These cuts resulted in higher tuition, increased debt, and greater racial and economic inequity. While state funding partially rebounded in the following years, it still remains lower than prerecession levels.

Congress will need to do more to prop up the higher education budgets of states and state colleges, such as through a state-federal partnership that covers immediate need while encouraging long-term state investment. Moreover, Congress should not grant states complete discretion over how these moneys are spent. It is critical that investment flows to schools that are already underresourced and serve high volumes of low-income students and students of color, who would bear a larger brunt of any cuts. Otherwise, there is the risk that declines in affordability and college quality will lead to more people dropping out or choosing not to enroll in college at all, leaving many of these individuals at a significant disadvantage in the workforce—and, in the case of students dropping out, being more likely to default on their student loans.

What Congress should do in the medium term to make up for state budget shortfalls at all levels of education

Congress must provide the funding necessary for states to maintain access to high-quality early, K-12, and higher education as their budgets are pinched by the effects of this crisis. It should also insist that states do not use federal stimulus money as an opportunity to make budget cuts in the long term or beyond what is necessary in the face of reduced state revenue. In addition, Congress must stringently oversee how the Department of Education administers these funds, through the department’s development of nonregulatory guidance, and how it monitors states’ usage of these funds.While the stimulus bill appears to include a mechanism to prevent states from making budget cuts for K-12 and higher education, this can easily be undermined by the Trump administration because it also provides broad waiver authority allowing the secretary of education to weaken this safeguard. Under the legislation, states must maintain their public investment throughout fiscal year 2020-2021 at a level of average funding over the past three fiscal years. However, the legislation allows the secretary to waive the requirement if there has been a precipitous decline in financial resources, which is all but guaranteed. Future legislation should limit this waiver authority.

Long-term dedication will be essential

Mitigating the immediate disruptions of extended shutdowns and stabilizing state budgets during this time of economic upheaval will not fully offset COVID-19’s impacts on America’s education systems. There are additional considerations that members of Congress should begin thinking about now in order to ensure that the next generation has the educational opportunities that will allow the United States to prosper in the decades to come.

Early education

While 44 states and the District of Columbia have some form of state pre-K, these programs serve only about one-third of 4-year-olds and less than 6 percent of 3-year-olds. Moreover, many of these programs only provide half-day education. While the expansion of state pre-K programs has had significant benefits for children and families, research shows that the greatest gains come from a full-day, well-funded program.

What Congress should do to support robust pre-K in the long term

To ensure that all students have the chance to enter kindergarten ready to learn, Congress should incentivize states to provide access to full-day pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. Congress should take up the Child Care for Working Families Act. This bill not only includes this incentive for pre-K, but would also provide funding to help families access affordable high-quality infant and toddler child care—and would increase pay for early educators. These measures would help develop a robust early learning system for all children, from birth to kindergarten entry.

K-12

Despite the heroic actions of countless educators to put in place remote learning plans in a matter of days and weeks, millions of students are nonetheless going to struggle to master the material necessary to be prepared for success in future grades and courses. In fact, research from Argentina, where there were extended and unexpected school shutdowns in the 1980s and 1990s, found that there were long-lasting effects on rates of graduation from high school and college as well as on employment and earnings. To avoid these sorts of long-term outcomes and to support students’ social-emotional needs both now and when it is safe to reopen schools, investments must go beyond spending levels that were in place before the coronavirus crisis.

The cancelation of annual testing in many parts of the country will decrease the understanding of what students have mastered thus far this academic year and how the effects of closings may differ across lines of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic, disability, and English language proficiency status. Furthermore, this gap in data and understanding of student learning will carry into future years since school report cards and accountability systems rely on multiple years of data.

What Congress should do to ensure that K-12 schools continue to improve in the long term

Congress—along with the Department of Education—must consider what specific waivers states may need in the coming school years to meet federal requirements for school accountability. To address the gap in understanding that the widespread cancelation of testing will create, Congress should dedicate funding to research the impact on student learning and future outcomes due to the coronavirus crisis.

Higher education

The economic recession of 2008, coupled with the domino effect of state budget cuts and tuition hikes, exacerbated the student debt crisis. The looming economic recession could throw already vulnerable and struggling student loan borrowers into economic turmoil. And the bigger the shortfall in funding for public colleges and college affordability, the more student loan defaulters there will be in future years.

What Congress should do to support higher education and student loan borrowers in the long-term

Offering robust support for higher education that averts cuts, encourages investment, and directs dollars toward underresourced public colleges must be the primary goal for Congress. In addition, Congress should provide relief to borrowers by passing student debt cancelation legislation that is particularly targeted toward borrowers with a high risk of defaulting and toward borrowers of color. The negotiations for the third stimulus package revealed strong support among legislators for student debt cancelation proposals to forgive $10,000 or more for each borrower.

Conclusion

It is heartening that members of Congress were able to overcome partisan differences to coalesce around a desperately needed stimulus bill that will provide meaningful assistance to millions of students and borrowers. Crucially, such an unprecedented crisis leaves no time to turn attention away from the needs of vulnerable students and student loan borrowers across the nation. Above all, equity for underserved communities should be the foremost goal as Congress considers its next step in meeting this crisis.

Viviann Anguiano is an associate director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress. Marcella Bombardieri is an associate director of Postsecondary Education at the Center. Neil Campbell is the director of innovation for K-12 Education Policy at the Center. Antoinette Flores is the director for Postsecondary Education at the Center. Steven Jessen-Howard is a research assistant for Early Childhood Policy at the Center. Laura Jimenez is the director of standards and accountability on the K-12 Education Policy team at the Center. Simon Workman is the director of Early Childhood Policy at the Center.

* Correction, April 3, 2020: This column has been updated to clarify that higher education money goes directly to institutions.

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